Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Racism, violence against women, and museums: Walking With Our Sisters

In his recent address to 'The Future of Ethnographic Museums' conference, Wayne Modest asked what role museums play within the government apparatus of minority exclusion. He stated that the refusal to acknowledge and articulate racism within the museum, and within the society that creates and funds the museum, is a deliberate stance. The absence of voice is an active institutional and political turning away from certain experiences. Modest was focusing on the colonial histories of racism attached to the acquisition of ethnographic objects, few of which are ever displayed within the context of such ongoing histories, but there are other silences and absences seldom acknowledged in public representation. One of these—the high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women—is at last being addressed, through a powerful exhibition that will be displayed across Canada—but not in mainstream museums.

In Canada, it is estimated that over 600 Aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered in the last 20 years. There are strong calls for a federal government inquiry into the issue. This is part of a larger pattern of violence against Aboriginal women, both by outsiders as the result of racism and by Aboriginal men experiencing pathological effects of colonialism: the effects of internalized racism.

‘Walking With Our Sisters,’ a project begun by Aboriginal artist Christi Belcourt, has involved mass public participation in the creation of over 1700 moccasin tops for display across Canada. The moccasin tops, or vamps, were used historically by Aboriginal women as a small area for exquisite needlework, to honor the person wearing the moccasins. Artists who have sent vamps for Walking With Our Sisters include many Aboriginal people, but also women from all over the world: Aberdeen, Australia, Israel.

Many of the vamps are in traditional tribal styles, exquisitely beaded or decorated with porcupine quills. Others feature angels, angel wings, crosses, tears, names and dates. Some are in unusual media: birchbark, paper. They are all poignant and powerful, and honour each missing women--and all of them.

The exhibition tour ‘sold out’ very rapidly. Intriguingly, the strong list of venues includes not one big 'mainstream' museum with historic ethnographic collections. Cultural centres, art galleries, community halls, most located in or near Aboriginal communities. But not the Canadian Museum of Civilization, not the ROM, not Glenbow or the Royal Alberta Museum. I can understand why; this about allowing Aboriginal people to grieve, in part. I wish it had a set of larger, ‘mainstream’ venues, though. It would be a powerful challenge to mainstream audiences, and to the legacies of colonialism in museums that still operate today.

It’s a fantastic exhibition and project, and I urge you to explore the vamps and check the exhibit schedule online at the Walking With Our Sisters website and Facebook pages.

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