A new exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will celebrate the incredible turnaround success stories of 12 Aboriginal women who sought help at Montreal’s Native Women’s Shelter and were able to turn their lives around.
Open as of September 13, Inspirational Aboriginal Women features stunning portraits of Aboriginal women who received care at the shelter and accompanying texts that relate heartbreaking stories and how they overcame distressing situations to become role models for their communities.
According to Native Women’s Shelter Executive Director Nakuset, the project with Montreal photographer Monique Dykstra is intended to counter the negative portrayal of marginalized Aboriginal women.
The blown-up, full-body images portray contemporary and successful Native women in a way that contradicts widely held stereotypes. As an example, Nakuset points to Anishinaabe tattoo artist Andrea MacDonald, who is covered in tattoos and doesn’t look Anishinaabe due to her mixed ancestry.
“Some of their stories are absolutely horrific – overcoming violence and rape, being on the streets and in total despair and how they found their inner strength to turn it around. Some of them are fighting to get their kids back too. They all come from different places, but they are all in society now,” said Nakuset.
All of the participants in the project were clients of the shelter at some point in time either by staying at the shelter or receiving services through the shelter’s outreach program.
While hundreds of women have been through the shelter à over the years, Nakuset said she selected these women with the aid of outreach worker Tealy Normandin because they felt that these women had amazing stories to tell.
Nakuset said Normandin is a perfect example. When Nakuset was an outreach worker 15 years ago, Normandin was her client.
Normandin tells her own story in the write-up that accompanies her portrait.
“Basically I was adopted at the age of three to a non-Native single mother and lavished with everything that a kid could ever want. I had a wonderful upbringing but at the age of 16 I discovered alcohol.
“I was a young mother myself; I had my first child by the age of 18 and had a complicated marriage in the sense that there was addiction involved on both of our parts.
“Eventually, to make a long story short, I sought out Nakuset and she helped me get back on track as she suggested a future plan for me with going back to school and what I had to do and where I had to go. The biggest part of that was reconnecting with my roots. So after I completed university my goal was to come and work at the shelter and give back to the organization that helped me. And, this is where I am.”
According to Normandin, her participation in the project made it easier for other participants to tell their stories and be photographed. She said the hardest and most emotional part was to revisit their history. But the process gave these women the ability to look at themselves and realize what they have overcome.
“All of the women who come to me, each and every one of them is a beautiful woman with a lot to offer with so much to give and so much to receive. So making a selection was difficult but I had to be aware of who would be comfortable telling their story,” said Normandin.
“Each of these women had something that stood out and that’s what I found was amazing about their story. It turned out very well, but every story is very different and there is something powerful out there from each and every woman.”
According to Nakuset, selecting participants wasn’t easy.
“Some backed out because they didn’t feel that they were worthy and some wound up sort of relapsing. It is a hard thing to be seen as a role model because if they don’t have the self-esteem and feel that they are actually role models then it can become hard,” said Nakuset.
Organizers were able to give these women a wonderful experience of getting their makeup done professionally, having their photographs taken in a studio and being interviewed. She said that part of this was to give these women a glamorous experience to celebrate their beauty and accomplishments.
Celebrating them publicly at the Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition will run for two months, gives the public the opportunity to understand what being an Aboriginal role model means.
“I think that there are so many levels, first it is physically what we look like, second it is where we come from, the fact that even though we have gone through hard times, that we are still strong and we want to be good role models for our children and the next generation and be seen in our communities in a good way,” said Nakuset.
Once the exhibition ends, the photos will be permanently installed at the shelter. Nakuset hopes women arriving at the shelter in a state of difficulty will look at these photos and see the possibilities of the future.
“It will give hope to these women. They too can do this, as we want to do this project every two years. The participants are now going to be in the position to do public speaking, be recognized as role models and have a chance to talk to the media,” said Nakuset.