Eye-Catching REDress Project Memorializes Indigenous Women

April 26, 2023 By Alice Berry, vfu6kd@virginia.edu Alice Berry, vfu6kd@virginia.edu

The empty red dresses spun in the wind where they hung from hooks along Culbreth Road. Their skirts flared with the breeze. Each one represented a missing or murdered Indigenous woman, girl or “two-spirit person” – a third gender category that describes people who are neither men nor women, according to the Indian Health Service.

The REDress Project, launched in 2010 by the mixed-ancestry Métis artist Jamie Black, honors Indigenous victims in the United States and Canada. REDress has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institutes’ National Museum of the American Indian, the Canadian Human Rights Museum, the Manitoba legislature and at other colleges and universities across North America. Now, it’s come to the University of Virginia.

“It’s a blend of commemoration, awareness building, art and activism all at once,” said Catherine Walden, program director for the Mellon Race, Place and Equity Program. “Where better to put it than in an institution of learning?”

Anyone curious about the installation can find the dresses inside and outside The Fralin Museum of Art, on the Arts Grounds between Culbreth Road and the School of Architecture, and along McCormick Road. The exhibit officially opens Friday, although installation began earlier this week.

Related Story

Red dresses blowing in the breeze
Red dresses, meant to honor Indigenous victims of violence, flutter in the wind along Culbreth Road. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“I think that no matter where the work is, it brings out a new story – ideally the story of land where it’s located,” Black said.

That makes the exhibition portable. It takes on a slightly different shape at its various locations across Grounds.

“The beauty of her concept is that it can happen anywhere,” said Adriana Greci Green, The Fralin’s curator of Indigenous art.

Most of the dresses in the exhibits have been donated by members of the Native and Indigenous Relations Community at the University, which is sponsoring the exhibition in collaboration with The Fralin. The Dean’s Fund for the Democracy Initiative supported the exhibition.

Bringing the dresses to the University will reach a different audience than those who see Black’s work at museums. Black originally envisioned REDress as a guerrilla art project, springing up spontaneously in high-traffic areas. But she’s found fulfillment in working with the Native and Indigenous Relations Community and other institutions.

“When it’s shown at a university, it’s an opportunity for students and staff to engage with this work,” Black said.

UVA’s Native and Indigenous Relations Community sponsored the exhibit in commemoration of the federally designated Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People Day, which is May 5. The day is also called Red Dress Day – an acknowledgement of Black’s art.

Red dresses blowing in the breeze
Red dresses, meant to honor Indigenous victims of violence, flutter in the wind along Culbreth Road. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The exhibition marks the second time the Native and Indigenous Relations Community at UVA has memorialized the event, sometimes called MMIWG2S Day. Last year, they had an informal red dress installation at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. Teresa Pollak, a citizen of the Monacan Nation, introduced the exhibit. American studies professor Kasey Jernigan gave a talk detailing the disproportionate violence Indigenous women face in North America.

Last year’s commemoration “was wonderful, so we thought we would try and do something a little bit more public with it this year,” Walden said.

This year, the installation at The Fralin will include related videos of Black’s performance art and information that provides context and describes the exhibit’s significance.

“Doing it inside the museum gives us the opportunity to also include Jamie’s video work, so it really gives a different angle,” Greci Green said.

When people see the dresses on Grounds, Greci Green said, they see the exhibit “unmediated” by the museum. There will be information to tell viewers that the dresses memorialize “those who have not come home.”

Members of the UVA community can physically interact with the dresses on Grounds in a way they can’t at the Fralin.

“The dresses are really enlivened by the environment,” Walden said.

The Hardest Working Icon: The Rotunda Enriches Student Life Daily
The Hardest Working Icon: The Rotunda Enriches Student Life Daily

That’s part of the point.

“From a spiritual perspective, I believe the dresses have the energy of the women we’ve lost. I always feel like someone’s there when I’m putting them up,” Black said.

Greci Green expects people to react to the exhibit differently depending on where on Grounds they encounter it.

“You expect to encounter things that make you think inside the museum,” Greci Green said. “It’s not the same when you’re walking outside.”

All the installations force a conversation about an often-neglected subject, Black said. For too long, the violence Indigenous women and two-spirit people face has been overlooked.

“The red dresses are a way of saying we are here,” Black said.

Even when the exhibit closes May 8, UVA will continue to have a bearing on the REDress Project.

“The history of this place becomes part of the work,” Black said.

Black will give an artist talk with anthropology and American studies professor Kasey Jernigan at 3 p.m. on Friday. You can watch the conversation on Zoom here.