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Indigenous women create augmented reality murals tackling inequalities, showing strength for Calgary

The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth unveiled "Women's Count" at Calgary Police Service headquarters on Thursday, July 23, 2020.
The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth unveiled "Women's Count" at Calgary Police Service headquarters on Thursday, July 23, 2020. Global News

Female artists from the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth have created three augmented reality (AR) murals, chosen for specific Calgary locations.

It’s part of the Indigenous Women’s Augmented Mural Series, a yearlong project by 20 women from 15 to 30 years old.

The murals — featuring ribbon skirts, hide and a digitally created painting — focus on democratic participation, employment barriers and gender-based violence, and are comprised of mixed media elements, according to New Tribe Magazine.

The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth unveiled “Women’s Count” at Calgary Police Service headquarters on Thursday, July 23, 2020.
The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth unveiled “Women’s Count” at Calgary Police Service headquarters on Thursday, July 23, 2020. Global News

It was a deep, meaningful project that told traditional stories in fresh ways and explored what it means to be an Indigenous woman, said USAY executive director LeeAnne Ireland on Wednesday.

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“[The girls] love this project so much and they wanted to continue meeting so much that they actually tried to stall from painting and stall the project so that they could keep connecting,” she said.

“Projects like this, they mean a lot to young Indigenous women… It’s meaningful to the people that see the murals and they’re really fun because you can interact with them, but the process of making them was really powerful and we learned so much about each other and they learned so much about themselves.”

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The group worked on the project from April 2019 to March 2020. Two of three unveilings have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mural series was funded with $45,500 from the Alberta government, Ireland said.

Actively getting involved in democracy

The artists unveiled their permanent mural called “Women’s Count,” which tells the story of women’s governance and encourages their participation in politics, at Calgary Police Service headquarters on July 23.

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Sticks and handprints frame the hide mural, the title of which reflects a winter’s count.

“[The] traditional winter’s count is where Indigenous nations would get together and pick significant events that happened over the year,” Ireland said, “and then depict them on hide in what we would call now infographics, these very simple symbols that would reflect those events.”

Ireland said the artists came up with their own symbols that reflect voting practices.

“Indigenous women used to be the primary governing bodies for Indigenous communities, and then how, through colonization, those roles were kind of squashed and how it continues to still play a negative role in how women participate in democracy,” she said, explaining that the mural is a call to action.

When using the USAY AR app, you can hear a story, reflecting oral traditions.

The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth unveiled “Women’s Count” at Calgary Police Service headquarters on Thursday, July 23, 2020.
The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth unveiled “Women’s Count” at Calgary Police Service headquarters on Thursday, July 23, 2020. Courtesy: Calgary Police Service

Police said they have been working with USAY for months to “find ways that our buildings can better reflect Calgary’s Indigenous heritage and we are honoured that they offered to hang this art in our headquarters.”

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It is significant that this mural was placed there. Ireland explained that police forces, in general, have always been a suppression tool against Indigenous people.

“We thought it would be a good symbol of reconciliation to have that be a moment where we’re giving them this winter’s count that’s created by Indigenous women,” she said.

“Their accepting that is kind of like symbolism or representation of how we can foster reconciliation and build relationships between Indigenous people and the police and civic engagement moving forward.”

Read more: Canada is asking families of murdered, missing Indigenous women to wait for action plan. Why?

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Artist Morrigan Caldwell was proud to see her art at CPS headquarters.

“I think it’s reassuring because we worked really hard on it and we did a lot to achieve it. So knowing that they appreciate it, it’s like something that’s really heartwarming,” she said at the unveiling.

Calgary Police Service Chief Mark Neufeld uses the USAY AR app to hear more of the story behind the mural.
Calgary Police Service Chief Mark Neufeld uses the USAY AR app to hear more of the story behind the mural. Global News

Overcoming workplace barriers

The “Barrier Breakers” piece is about overcoming workplace obstacles.

Nine girls are in plain clothes, in black and white, which is how Ireland said the community sees them.

“People kind of view Indigenous women as not contributing to the workforce and not being part of the workforce, and so they wanted it to be like they were plain-clothed,” she said.

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“Then when they broke that wall down [through the AR app] — or that barrier to success or employment — they were all dressed in their aspirational careers.”
The “Barrier Breakers” piece deals with overcoming workplace barriers.
The “Barrier Breakers” piece deals with overcoming workplace barriers. Courtesy: Prairie Rose Photography

When you hold up your phone with the app and tap your screen, bricks fly off in a 3D effect.

“You hear an audio montage of different workplace sound effects and then you see the girls transformed into full colour in construction outfits, vet attire, health-care workers, social workers, teachers — all of these things that they aspire to be when they join the workforce and break down those perceived barriers for what it means to be an Indigenous woman trying to get into employment,” Ireland said.

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She said there is a pervasive belief that Indigenous people don’t contribute, so the mural aims to shatter that by showing the women’s career goals via their attire.

“Sometimes people will think that they’re not being racist and they’ll say things like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you were Native. You have a job and a house and stuff.’ That just reinforces this idea that Indigenous people don’t contribute to Canadian society, that we don’t work,” Ireland said.

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“Barrier Breakers” is set to be displayed at Forest Lawn High School, chosen because of how interactive the piece is, plus the universality of not knowing what you want to do when you grow up.

“We thought that if they could see these people, these young women who have perceived barriers and vulnerabilities to being able to achieve their goals and still have those goals and aspirations, that it might [inspire] — not to be cheesy,” Ireland said.

“Artwork sends a powerful message.”

WATCH: Video shows how the murals’ AR components work.

Tackling gender-based violence

Three traditional ribbon skirts — from small to large, representing the past, present and future — comprise the piece called “Vulnerable to Valuable,” which tackles gender-based violence.

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“When you scan over it with the augmented reality in the skirt [on the left in the picture below], in our history, you see the Highway of Tears and that’s representing the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Ireland explained.

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The skirt pictured in the middle represents the present.

“You see this recognition of that history and you see the red handprint video of the girl putting the red handprint over her mouth, which we thought symbolized how Indigenous women like my age are creating activism and voice and bringing awareness to our past,” Ireland said.

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If you use the AR app on the small skirt, you will see a field of bison.

“We thought that symbolized getting back to our roots, getting back to our culture and embracing our future where Indigenous girls don’t have to constantly be activists and fighting for justice,” Ireland said.

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“There just is justice.”

“Vulnerable to Valuable” depicts generational trauma and healing.
“Vulnerable to Valuable” depicts generational trauma and healing. Courtesy: Prairie Rose Photography

The piece will be placed at homeless shelter Inn From the Cold, Ireland said, because it is a good conversation starter and some people there might be experiencing gender-based violence or family instability.

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“They might not have the app… so we thought that it’s kind of visually stunning on its own and it has a very cultural presence,” she said.

“We [also] thought that the imagery could be potentially triggering, and if you’re at Inn From the Cold, you’re going to receive a lot of really good cultural supports.”