Aboriginal artist targets virtual hate

Raven Davis sat in a coffee shop last December, scrolling through social media posts as the Internet flared with reactions to the announcement of a federal inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Of the 200 responses Davis read in those 20 minutes, only three users expressed support for the initiative.

“Those low life, begging sluts deserve what’s coming to them,” one online commenter said.

Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by violence. According to the Government of Canada, 16 per cent of all women murdered between 1980 and 2012 were indigenous, while only representing four per cent of the female population.

In the first phase of the inquiry, the government plans to engage with survivors of violence and affected communities to gather information for further investigation.

“Start by living like bloody humans and don’t wonder around searching for crack at 2AM, and that might be a good start,” said one post Davis read.

At the gallery last week, the virtual vitriol plays in a loop, projected onto the gallery wall. The video presentation was just one component Davis’s performance art installation, “It’s Not Your Fault.”

Davis posted the video to YouTube in December as a response to the online hate, based on personal experience of violence.

Copied and pasted from Internet comment sections, the text overlays black-and-white footage of Davis praying to be healed. Over the speakers, Davis sings the Strong Women’s song, a song credited to kwewag women in solitary confinement in a prison in Kingston, Ont. during the 1970’s. The rhythm is insistent, something between a lullaby and a lament.

“We don’t allow this talk in any other form, and it shouldn’t be allowed through the media,” Davis said. “These people aren’t just trolls. They’re people.”

Davis clinks around in jingle-dance regalia as people trickle into the room for the performance.

Patrons are encouraged to write a thought, sentiment or prayer for missing and murdered aboriginal women on a small piece of paper. The messages are then fastened to the metal cones on Davis’s dress.

“I had the chance to preview this particular piece and it brought me to tears,” said Melissa Mart, a fan of Davis’s work. “I think this content is really hard to witness, but equally important.”

Davis stands on a small platform as a group gathers around. Davis unfurls a Canadian flag and lays it down. With a hammer, the fabric is nailed into the floor.

Davis moves extemporaneously – hopping, spinning and writhing – the dangling cones lagging slightly behind.

Red paint trickles down Davis’s legs. The artist stomps on the national emblem, smearing it like blood.

“I kind of slipped into this state of mind where almost nobody was in this room,” Davis said. “I was strictly doing my performance … and I really felt complete within that.”

The performance concludes after a few minutes, leaving the audience silent.

LaMeia Reddick, who works at the Avalon sexual assault centre, said the dance touched her in a way that made me uncomfortable.

“Raven’s process and performance evokes emotion in me that I know is there, but is only really brought out with a visual demonstration like this,” Reddick said.

“I’m bringing that back to my organization … to actually be a leader in it.”

An audience member helps Raven Davis prepare for the performance
An audience member helps Raven Davis prepare for the performance

“I don’t even know where to start,” NSCAD University student Camila Salcedo said.

Davis said the defacement of the Canadian flag was meant to highlight the hypocrisy of a government that protects its image more than its indigenous people.

“I think it really shines a light on the common misconception that Canadians … are these progressive people,” said 15-year-old Elise Pectitoc, a student at Citadel High School.

“No matter how many times we say it, Canada won’t become this place we like to pretend it is until we actually realize: no, we’re not perfect as a nation,” she said.

“I imagine a lot of these people are just regular Canadians, and they think it’s okay to say these things on social media.”

Davis conceived of the piece as a rebuttal to the cold, faceless hatred of the Internet, with the warmth of the crowd fuelling the performance.

“It started when people started tying their … prayers and sentiments to my physical body,” Davis said. “It was quite emotional, having people come up to me and offer their words for me to use in the dance.”

Martin Lynch, another Citadel student, said he suspects these online commenters have had little or no exposure to real First Nation Canadians. “I think talking about these issues,” he added, “is only going to make things better.”

Children of the Internet age, Lynch and Pectitoc still hold out hope for future reconciliation.

“I’d like to say we’re progressing,” Lynch said, “but only time will tell.”