“WALKING WITH OUR SISTERS”
MSVU ART GALLERY, HALIFAX
In 2012, Michif artist Christi Belcourt put out a call for people to create moccasin tops, also known as vamps. She never anticipated that more than 2,000 vamps would be created by people of all ages across Turtle Island. “Walking With Our Sisters” will travel to more than 25 places— everywhere from Kahnawake Territory to Toronto—and is booked until 2019, with a closing ceremony in Batoche, Saskatchewan. The project honours thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two-spirit people and their families. More than 300 pairs of vamps represent the children who didn’t return home from residential schools.
At MSVU Art Gallery in K’jipuktuk (Halifax), I was invited to wear a long skirt (though it wasn’t required, in honour of Two-spirit people who may not choose to wear a skirt), and asked to take off my boots. An Elder smudged me, cleansing my spirit and heart. Another keeper guided me to take as much time as needed, and let me know that there were supports and blankets. Every iteration of “Walking With Our Sisters” is maintained and cared for through daily ceremonies by community members and Elders to protect its sacredness. This makes every exhibition different in every city. In K’jipuktuk, I was offered a tobacco prayer tie from a cedar box created by Cree/métis artist Marnie Smith and people in Haida Gwaii, and slowly walked clockwise, overwhelmed by the mass amount of vamps, cedar and sacred items placed in ceremony. “Walking With Our Sisters” is an emotional journey, acknowledging hundreds of years of colonial abuse of Indigenous people. Since I am a mixed Mi’kmaq woman, every step I took among the path of vamps represented the unfinished lives of my sisters, cousins, aunties, mothers, grandmothers and great-greatgrandmothers. Through intricate beadwork, the vamps feature detailed images of feathers, moon cycles, eagle faces, baby footprints, plants, rivers, sunsets and a kaleidoscope of colours representing stolen lives. Teresa Burrows’s vamps—of two women’s eyes, with yellow emergency tape reading “Police Line Do Not Cross”—is profoundly political, while another pair of vamps by Burrows, emblazoned with the words “Hello My Name Is: Who Cares,” confronts society’s disregard for an ongoing genocide. Skawennati’s vamps of a brown-skinned angel and mermaid, each with long, black hair, are part mythology, all spirit. Arlene Piddington’s vamps represent generations of women: a grandmother with an umbrella, holding her daughter’s hand, who has a baby strapped to her back, and a little girl tugging on her buckskin dress, all wearing mukluks.
“Walking With Our Sisters” is a ceremonial walk of healing, grief and awareness. Offering prayers and tobacco, I could hear generations of ancestors weeping with every honour song. Art is essential medicine. —SHANNON WEBB-CAMPBELL
Installation view of “Walking With Our Sisters” at MSVU Art Gallery, 2017 PHOTO KATIE NAKASKA