A portrait of a woman on 32 strings of ceramic beads hangs from a wooden beam above the Museum of International Folk Art’s atrium.
At 13 feet tall – and weighing more than a ton – it towers over passersby. The artwork is called “Every One.”
Each of the handmade beads – 4,000 in all – is intended to represent a missing or murdered indigenous woman or girl in Canada. The number that has been derived from evidence from over a span of several decades.
According to Native artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, the delicateness of the beads and weight of the total piece requires a great level of care during transport and installation.
While installing the work in Colorado Springs earlier this summer, Luger recalled, an artist colleague said to him that it’s as if people have to be more careful with the breakable beads than with the human lives they represent.
“They’re only the representation of bodies and lives that weren’t as gently cared for, which is tragic to me,” said the artist, who lives in Glorieta, and is affiliated with the Mandan, Hidasta, Arikara and Lakota tribes.
Luger says his installation was made to “rehumanize” existing data about missing and murdered Native people, and he described the higher rates of violence affecting Native women and LGBTQ people as a systemic, “international epidemic.”
“Every One” will be at MOIFA – as part of the city-wide Project Indigene highlighting Native art and artists, coinciding with this weekend’s Santa Fe Indian Market – until Sept. 17. The piece was initially made for a larger exhibition at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs from May to July.
“The project is based on engaging with everyone and conceptualizing what 4,000 actually looks like,” he said.
He collaborated with a First Nations artist Kali Spitzer, who took the photograph of a woman on which the beadwork image is based.
Luger said the woman in the 2016 photo, titled “Sister,” wanted to be anonymous, but is the sister of someone who is “a part of those numbers” about missing or murdered Native people in Canada.
Though the total number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada has never been officially verified and lower numbers have previously been recorded by the government and other institutions, the figure of more than 4,000 made headlines in 2016.
It was reported to have come from research from the Native Women’s Association of Canada, based on names compiled by the activist Walk 4 Justice initiative. A Time magazine article from 2016 uses the 4,000 figure.
Walk 4 Justice co-founder Bernie Williams told the Journal that the number is based on decades of speaking with families of victims. Some of the incidents they’ve recorded go back to the ’40s and ’50s. She said not all of these incidents are officially reported and noted a lack of trust of the government among Canadian tribes.
There aren’t similar records specifically for missing indigenous LGBTQ community members. But Luger said the desire to bring attention to those victims is also “embedded” in his piece.
In his project description, he describes queer and trans community members as “impacted at comparable alarming rates to that of women.”
The same issues exist in the U.S., says Luger. A 2008 U.S. Department of Justice study indicated that in some areas of the country, murder rates among Native women were as much as 10 times the national average.
Canadian law enforcement and the government institutions have started logging missing and murdered indigenous women numbers within the past several years. And in 2016, the Canadian government launched a national inquiry into the number of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ people, the root causes of the problem and to make recommendations for safety measures.
Luger said data are not being similarly collected in the U.S.
One of his hopes for the installation is to push for more engagement on the issue in the U.S. If an institution purchases “Every One,” he plans on donating half of the proceeds to organizations pushing for information-gathering similar to what’s being done in Canada.
“Amplifying those (groups) and opening up that process to collaboration is what will really help bring it home,” he said.
Call for beads
Luger put out a call on social media in January asking for people to send him two-inch-diameter ceramic beads. Individuals and participants from dozens of institutions subsequently either mailed him beads or made them in workshops he organized, including one at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe earlier this year.
“It happened in people’s kitchens, and it also happened at The Armory (Park Avenue Armory Conservancy) in New York,” he said of the project’s reach.
The clay beads were then fired in a kiln and painted with ink to display Spitzer’s photographic image of a woman’s face.
Luger says he opened up the process to the public to add the element of community engagement. Using the repetition of hand-making each bead, he says, allows people to grasp the concept that “this represents a life, this is already too many, this is enough.”
“(It is) this idea that art is a process and not an object, and I wanted to open up the project to a continental effort,” he said.
According to MOIFA director Khristaan Villela, “Every One” will travel to the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and the Heard Museum in Phoenix following its stay in New Mexico.
He noted that on the other side of the atrium, the museum is displaying a quilt that addresses the same issue: “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Since 1492,” by Navajo artist Susan Hudson.
Luger’s work aligns with MOIFA’s mission of using art to build bridges among varying groups of people, said Villela. Part of that includes improving understanding of social issues and “building empathy” among different communities.
“Artists are not living in a vacuum,” said Villela “They’re dealing with all kinds of social, economic issues. Sometimes they make things that are really beautiful and just decorative, and other times they make things that are impressive, incredible pieces, but are dealing with serious issues like this one.”