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On an early June evening, the three-paneled video billboard that towers over one of downtown Toronto’s busiest intersections shuffles through its usual advertisements. Drive a Mitsubishi Outlander, the billboard urges. Sign up for Bell service provider. Buy Gorilla Glue.

Suddenly, a different sort of image flashes onto two of the three screens: a photo of 10 women, pressed shoulder to shoulder on a brick-lined street. Some wear jackets and dresses influenced by Western fashion, others vibrantly colored items of traditional indigenous clothing. Each is looking directly into the camera and smiling, some faintly, others with big, beaming grins.

The billboard’s central screen proclaims the title of the image—“ 10 Indigenous Lawyers ”—along with the name of the photographer and her heritage: Nadya Kwandibens, Anishinaabe.

Across the street, Kwandibens is standing with her face titled upward, watching as her art fills the billboard. She whips out her phone so she can capture the moment.

“That’s crazy!” she cries. “10 Indigenous Lawyers” (2012) Chromogenic print 61 x 91.4 cm It’s a warm summer night in the city and Kwandibens is wearing half her hair in a long braid, with the other half buzzed short. Around her neck hangs a golden pendant spelling out “Kwé,” which means “woman” in Ojibwe.

Kwandibens, 40, has been taking portraits of indigenous people for the past 18 years. The work started as a hobby, but she soon realized that she had a talent for it — and a knack for putting people at ease, for cracking jokes until they flashed a perfect, candid smile.

She is among 50 artists who have contributed to “ Resilience ,” an innovative new exhibition that is bringing the art of indigenous women to 167 billboards across Canada this summer. Most of the billboards are digital and will be rotating through all 50 artworks until the beginning of August.

“[W]e have this wonderful dream,” says curator Lee-Ann Martin, who worked on the project in collaboration with Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), an organization that supports women visual artists in Canada. She hopes that people taking summer trips along Canadian highways or making their regular commutes to work “ will see these images up on a billboard and will go, ‘Wow!’”

Martin, who is Mohawk, is one of the country’s foremost curators of contemporary indigenous art. Over the course of her now three-decade career, she has worked with many indigenous artists—but never with 50 at one time. When MAWA asked if she would be interested in curating a nation-wide billboard campaign, she was eager to take up the challenge. The project, Martin knew, would offer unprecedented visibility to indigenous women’s art, which has long been underrepresented and excluded from the Canadian canon. In “Dominion” ( 2011 photograph, 36” x 48”), Kwakiutl artist Mary Anne Barkhouse juxtaposes a biblical quotation over a black-and-white photograph of a wolf. For many centuries , and in many places around the world, women artists have been denied the opportunities afforded to their male counterparts. But in Canada, indigenous women artists have faced a unique set of barriers. The first, Martin says, is that Western anthropologists and museum experts have historically categorized traditional women’s arts—like beading and sewing—as crafts, rather than fine arts. “[Indigenous] women’s art has always been undervalued because it didn’t fit into these Western kinds of divisions,” she explains.

In 1965, the Canadian government established the Indigenous Art Center to preserve and promote contemporary art by indigenous people. But some women artists weren’t able to take advantage of the center’s programs, according to Martin. Under the Indian Act , an 1876 law that patently sought to assimilate Canada’s First Nations People , indigenous […]

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