Feb 7, 2015

the dangers of using art (and privilege) for solidarity

Tina Fontaine
If you are not from Canada, you may not know that we have a crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.   Even some people in Canada don't seem to understand that indigenous women here are being killed and taken at a dramatically higher rate than other women.  There have been nearly1,200 women killed or disappeared in the last 30 years. Both Amnesty International and the UN consider this a crisis.  Of course for many years these women's lives didn't 'count' and their deaths were not investigated, not only because they were aboriginal, but often because they had been living on the streets, perhaps self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and doing survival sex work. Their killers clearly thought they could get away with killing these women, and to a large extent, they have. (For an academic take on how these women are seen as homo sacer check out this article by Gerry Pratt).

It was thanks to the hard work of the Native Women's Association of Canada and their research of cold cases that this issue is more present in the Canadian media (which before was widely using a figure of 600 when they mentioned the issue at all).  I'm fascinated by the politics of death counts and so impressed at how they have made their sisters 'count'. 

There was another hideous murder late last year that finally got more media attention.  Tina Fontaine (picture above) was only 15 last August when she was sexually tortured, murdered, and dumped in the river in Winnipeg. Shamefully our prime minister Harper, when pressed on this case, said publicly that the killing of aboriginal women was not a "social phenomenon" in Canada and that no inquiry is needed.

Recently Evan Munday, a non-aboriginal artist, wanted to press Harper on this issue and raise awareness.  He committed to drawing the face of one these murdered or missing woman a day and sending it to Harper and posting it on social media. Doing all of them would take three years.  He got a surprising amount of attention for this - not only on twitter, which retweeted the images widely, but also on the CBC and in the Toronto Star and in their freebie version that is all over the subway here, the Metro news. He got much more attention than most if not all actions organized by native women in the past few years. 

(Clockwise from upper left): Elaine Frieda Alook, Danita Faith Bigeagle, Maggie Lea Burke, Amanda Bartlett, Abigail Patrice Andrews, Roberta Marie Ferguson, Angel Carlick, Sharon Abraham. drawings by Evan Munday.
 But he stopped after the eight drawings above, and that's really what I want to tell you about.  He issued an apology which I'm sure was difficult to write. I am so thankful for the strength of the families in speaking to him and for his ability to listen.  I have great respect for his decision and this process, and think it is one we can all, artists and not, learn from as we work to build more respectful solidarity for social change across all sorts of differences.  As he writes:

"... After extensive conversation with a group formed of families of some of the missing and murdered women, I believe I cannot continue the project in a way that respects these women’s autonomy or a way that helps rather than harms the families of these thousands of women. I apologize for hurting the families of these women and for making them relive painful memories.

As a man of no indigenous background, I realized the project tread a very thin line, and I tried to be very cautious to avoid things like self-aggrandizement, appropriation of image, and overshadowing the real work of advocacy groups. I started the project on impulse (never a good idea), realizing I was a dilettante in indigenous culture and issues, and so, I tried to be as open and non-defensive about the project as I could. I spoke to representatives of NWAC (the Native Women’s Association of Canada) and WWOS (Walking With Our Sisters) early on to see if they were supportive of the project and how I could help direct attention to their organizations. I tried to divert many of the journalists who reached out to me to these groups. The last thing I wanted to be was a Macklemore, showing up with concern to an issue late, having no personal connection to (and not much knowledge of) the issue, and receiving much undue credit for a symbolic gesture.

However, over the weekend, some of the families of the missing and murdered indigenous women got in touch with me about a number of concerns they had about the initiative. Some relatives had been in touch earlier and were supportive of the project. But other family members saw the project as extremely problematic. They outlined a number of concerns, primary among them being the issue of permission. (The women’s families had not consented to have their loved ones’ images used in this manner.) They were also concerned that the attention the project was receiving was drawing attention away from the indigenous-led efforts, and the very illustrations themselves – which were thought to be too cartoony – were seen as inappropriate. Additionally, as I realized earlier, there is great dissent within the indigenous community as to whether a public government inquiry or an independent inquiry would be more beneficial. As these concerns came from family members, I took them very seriously. I told the group I’d work on a plan that would (I hoped) address those concerns. I presented the plan on Sunday.

The five-point plan is too long (and probably irrelevant) to include here, but it involved voluntary participation from the women’s family members through an open call (that is, people would have to request their missing relative to be drawn – I wouldn’t seek out family members and harangue them) and an offer to donate the illustrations to an indigenous advocacy group, rather than tweeting from my personal account. A few other alterations, such as refusing to speak to media about the project, were also included.

This plan did not adequately address the family members’ concerns. They felt the illustrations themselves were very problematic, because cartoon drawings denoted, to them, fun and jokes. “There is nothing funny or cute or joking about my mother being killed by the police. My journey for justice for the past thirteen years has never been fun,” said one family member. If this comic-booky look was my style of illustration, perhaps I wasn’t the most suitable artist for this memorial project.
More than anything, I don’t want to antagonize the families of the victims.  Whatever the initiative has accomplished – and I admit, it may have accomplished nothing at all – if the family members feel it hinders rather than helps advocacy efforts on this issue, there’s no reason for me to continue. I need to respect the autonomy of these women (or in this case, their autonomy as represented by their next of kin) and stop the project.

Again, I apologize for the harm I’ve done to the families of missing and murdered indigenous women and to any indigenous-led advocacy groups that I’ve harmed through this media distraction. Thank you for your interest in the project and your concern about the thousands of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada. Thank you for calling me out and bringing your concerns to my attention. I apologize, also, if this statement reads as defensive. I’m trying my best to not be. Instead, I’m hoping you can see this lengthy statement as a process of me learning what I did wrong, so I don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

If you were supportive of the illustration project, please consider donating to the indigenous-led organization, It Starts With Us (http://www.itstartswithus-mmiw.com/donate), as I’ve done, and will do so again. If everyone who retweeted one of my illustrations donated even a few dollars, it would make a huge difference to their advocacy initiatives. Please also consider getting involved in one of the Women’s Memorial Marches on February 14.  And if you’re more into Twitter, Gregory Scofield (@gregoryscofield) and Lauren Crazybull (@LCrazybull) are both doing very important projects regarding #MMIW that you may want to follow.

Please don’t be upset this initiative is ending. There are many other ways you and I and we all can help bring attention to this extremely crucial issue and be allies. And if any indigenous-led advocacy groups could ever use some cartoon illustration for a project or two, I invite them to get in touch. I will happily volunteer my skills.

Thanks for understanding."

His ending the project got much less twittter traffic, but there was a short article about it in the Star in which he is quoted as saying, “It’s been an uncomfortable process, but it’s been an important learning process.” Amen to that.

I share this story and Evan's letter because I hope it can serve as an important lesson and reminder to us all of the importance, when doing solidarity work, of coordinating well with those most directly affected by a situation.  In Canada we are all affected by this tragedy, but some live it much more directly.  I want to work for change with those most affected, rather than try to enact change for them.  To me this is the difference between solidarity and charity. But it's not always easy or obvious how to do this, so my hope is that sharing this story can offer some lessons.

The first tweeter Evan mentioned in his letter, @gregoryscofield, has been tweeting one name a day of the missing women, with photos. Why has his work received so much less attention than Evan's got? Is it because he is native and Evan is white? Because Gregory is using photos not doing drawings? Is it because Evan somehow worked the media more?

The photo on the right is from January 27th: Name A Day:Keana Benson, 14. Find our little sister. Prince Albert, Sask.

I appreciate that the photos that Gregory posts are of the women who have not been found, and always say the city where they disappeared and the line "find our missing sister" or, in this case, little sister.  In comparison to Evan's drawings it seems much closer, more urgent, more real to me - whereas Evan's seem more like commemoration.  Gregory's project personally spurs me more to take action than the drawings do.  But I heard of these only through Evan. 

If you're in Canada please consider going to one of the annual February 14th marches and ceremonies to honor the missing women.  There are actions in most cities, and they are even extending in to the US now.  The details are here. If you're in Toronto please join me.
(I do, by the way, think that comics can be used well to tell painful stories of loss and violence.  This short strip does a good job of telling the story of Marlene Bird, an aboriginal woman who recently survived an attack where she lost her legs. I especially appreciate that the artist, Dan Archer, incorporated audio of her own voice.)

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