When Resilience: The National Billboard Exhibition Project was first discussed by Winnipeg-based art centre Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), it was an idea without a name, but with one very clear vision: to publically celebrate and commemorate the work of Indigenous female artists in a countrywide act of reconciliation.
“This project is not about Indigenous women’s victimization or being a statistic, it’s about celebrating survival,” says Lee-Ann Martin, curator of the Resilience project. “It’s about celebrating Indigenous cultural knowledge and practices, and critiquing colonial and corporate interests that devastate the culture and the land.”
Beginning June 1 and running until Aug. 1, the Resilience exhibition features artwork from 50 Indigenous female artists displayed on 174 commercial billboards across Canada. The works reflect a wide range of styles and materials, from photography to digital printing to acrylic painting, showcasing the diversity of First Nations, Métis and Inuit artwork.
“It’s interesting to see the mix of all the artists involved in this project,” says Caroline Monnet, a French Algonquin artist whose digital print is displayed on multiple billboards. “Whether they’re East Coast or West Coast, more traditional or more contemporary artists, it’s interesting to see that we’re all Indigenous women, but we’re not all the same.”
For Lita Fontaine, a Dakota-Anishinaabe Métis artist, the Resilience project provides an unexpected outlet for a political statement. Fontaine’s billboard displays a photograph she took of a 2016 pipeline protest rally in The Forks, Winnipeg. The long banner carried by protest marchers reads “Water is sacred,” which is also the title and focus of Fontaine’s photograph.
At 60 years old, Fontaine hopes this project will inspire a younger generation of Indigenous people to continue to fight for their rights and land. “As Indigenous people, we are the carriers of culture for future generations. We’re trying to get these young people to be aware that they’re going to have to be responsible in the future,” she says. “The young generation will hopefully see these billboards and continue on with that fight in protecting Mother Earth.”
Echoing Fontaine’s sentiment, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, a Haida artist and lawyer, uses her art to open a dialogue about Indigenous land rights and territory. “This particular piece explores the antiquated laws and fallacy of the Canadian government stealing land and resources from Indigenous Peoples,” says Williams-Davidson, referring to her billboard art depicting a half-woman, half-octopus supernatural being. “Despite all the suppression, despite the enacting of provincial and federal laws across Canada, our Indigenous laws still prevail and still govern our Peoples’ actions over the land and sea.”
From the beginning, a key goal of the Resilience project was the exposure of Indigenous art to the widest possible audience. MAWA opted to present the artworks in every province, on billboards in high-traffic and highly visible areas and, where possible, close to Indigenous communities.
“It’s about putting these images from Indigenous women out in this large format across the country so that the general public can see it. When it’s not confined to one art gallery, it’ll have greater exposure,” says Martin. “Indigenous female artists have been overlooked, underrepresented and excluded. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that there started to be an inkling of respect. A project of this magnitude is a step in the action of reconciliation.”