On Monday, brilliant red dresses swung from the trees of Cornell’s campus to raise awareness on a national crisis.
The REDress Project is an extension of an art installation by Canadian artist Jaime Black. The exhibition comments on the high rates of sexual assault and murder among Indigenous women in the United States.
On Monday afternoon, Black spoke at an event in Statler Hall organized by Native American and Indigeous Students at Cornell, where she covered REDress’s initiatives and influences as well as its purpose on the Cornell campus.
“We need to make space for Indigenous voices in institutions like this and we have to value and take seriously, Indigenous-led initiatives and going forward in institutions like this,” Black told The Sun in an interview.
The artist said she was inspired to continue the REDress project after witnessing other works and social movements for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement, such as the Kokum Scarf campaign on Instagram and Nadia Kwandiben’s “Red Works Photography.”
According to Black, the meaning behind her choice to use red is open to interpretation.
“I don’t like to give people clear answers,” she said. “It’s wonderful to come at the work with your own connection with that color.”
“But to me, it’s the sacredness of that lifeblood,” Black continued. “[Red] shows that sacred life blood is being spilled. It shows that there is also violence happening.”
According to Black, each dress is a memorial for Indigenous women who became victims of institutionalized acts of colonial erasure. She hoped that the red dresses could open up space for people to talk about “the politics of land here at Cornell.”
“For those of us who are Indigenous on campus, most of us have or know someone who has gone missing who is within our family or within our friend group,” Annabel Young ’21, co-chair of Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell, told The Sun in an interview. “My great grandma was Ojibwa [and] was murdered by my great grandpa.”
“To be indigenous and to be female moving throughout the world, there is a risk of violence that is different than other groups experience,” Young said.
Young said the red dresses should remind students of “the resonancy of Indigenous genocide … and remembrance that this is indigenous land wherever you go.”
Sachem Sam George, one of the chiefs of the Cayuga Nations, and his wife, Debbie George, also attended Black’s talk. Sachem George is the only chief presently living in Cayuga territory, according to Debbie George, and gave the opening words at the event to represent the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Cayuga Nations.
In her presentation, Black said that she was moved after hearing Jo-Ann Episkewnew, director of the Indigenous People’s Health Research Center at the University of Regina, speak about the genocide of Indigenous women in Canada.
Black collaborated with native artists at the Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery and contacted people around the world asking for donations of red dresses to her project. In her presentation, Black said she received over 400 red dresses in 2009 alone, many donated by non-Indigenous people.
In 2011, Black installed the first REDress exhibition in her own city at the University of Winnipeg.
Since then, the critically-acclaimed REDress project has been installed in the National Museum of the American Indian, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and various universities around the United States. Cornell is the third installment of the REDress project in the United States.
Black is part of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, an international coalition movement working against violence towards First Nations, Inuit, Métis and other Native American communities.
“Who’s allowed to take space here? Who’s not allowed to take space here? Why is this colonial institution built on this land?” Black said in her closing comments. “Maybe that’s something that you guys can work on. Let’s start unpacking that.”