By Benjamin Powless
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Residents in several Montreal neighbourhoods awoke February 21 to find large photos of members of the local Indigenous community plastered across the front of buildings, as part of a global art project collectively titled Indigenous Forced Displacement.
Featuring 50 portraits, the installation highlights how Indigenous peoples have been displaced throughout history.
The installation is part of the Inside Out project, which features over 442,000 large black-and-white portraits from 2,329 groups in 138 countries, drawing attention to issues local to each community. In Montreal, the project is led by Nakuset, whose daytime job is the Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal.
“Because of the work I do, I know we are forced out of safe spaces, forced onto tiny reservations, we are continuously being removed,” Nakuset explained.
“They’re trying to get rid of the population. I wanted to remind people that after everything we’ve been through, all the colonial issues we’ve faced, we’re still here. With this project, people are going to walk by and see an angry Indigenous person staring at them,” she added with a laugh.
“Two years ago, I was watching 60 Minutes on TV and they featured JR, the French photographer and street artist. He spoke about his life’s work and introduced the project,” Nakuset explained. Individuals and communities were encouraged to apply join the project.
“After I watched the show, I said, I’m so applying. Then I got this email stating that due to the large interest I might not get a response for six months. That was two years ago, then the pandemic hit, so I thought I’m not doing this now. Then last fall, they wrote and asked if I was still interested in submitting the project for Indigenous Forced Displacement and I had to figure out what to do,” she added.
Nakuset contacted Native artists/photographers Vicki MacDonald, Craig Commanda and Martin Loft. The three took portraits of local Indigenous people in Montreal and Kahnawake, those on the reserve and in the streets, as well as students ranging from elementary school to university.
“I love putting the children in with the adults and showing that the children are our future leaders and knowledge keepers,” Nakuset said. From there, they worked with a group of volunteers to approach various building owners, send out press releases and post on social media to get ready to put up the portraits.
“It all came together really well, considering the first day, February 20, was crazy cold. I thought we would fail. I didn’t think the portraits would stick, because the glue had to be hot. On the second day, someone brought a camping stove, so we were boiling water and sticking them up right away. It took lots of innovation, and lots of good energy.”
Nakuset said everyone reacts differently when seeing themselves.
Simon Bird, a Cree from Saskatchewan, shared on Facebook that when he saw his picture posted on social media, it cheered him up and made him feel connected to the local community. Nakuset said that some of the images are of Inuit people, who are very proud to see their portraits.
“It’s bringing the community together and it’s elevating all the photographers because they’re part of a worldwide initiative. Even though the portraits will fall apart, the images on the website are forever,” she added.
For those interested in seeing the portraits, the Montreal locations are at 1900 rue le Ber, 5795 de Gaspe, 633 Beaumont, and 7010 Henri-Julien. People can also visit the project’s website at www.insideoutproject.net. The project is looking for new spaces, as they plan to put up more posters on March 20-21.
Benjamin Powless is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the NATION. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.