Katherine Takpannie: "Our Women and Girls are Sacred"
Billowing red smoke encircles a woman’s body. Our attention is on her in the foreground, her presence taking up most of the space within the frame. Her clothing seems odd for the setting and season: dressed in a black sleeveless minidress, she seems out of place. She appears to be moving slowly and deliberately across the snowy landscape, her body seemingly unaffected by the cold. The barren setting conveys death and loss, with the flowing water behind her indicating some movement and presence of life – a sort of hope that things keep on moving, a reassurance that spring and life will return once again.
Katherine Takpannie’s photographic compositions draw in the viewer, even if it is just to appreciate the work from an aesthetic distance. Bright red smoke, the black of the woman’s dress and hair, and the stark whiteness of the snowy landscape. There is, however, more to this attention-grabbing scene. Our Women and Girls are Sacred (2016–18) is meant to honour, bring attention to and mourn the many missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, while also acknowledging the grieving friends, family and communities left behind, with little or no justice for their loved ones.
A personal tragedy has deeply informed part of this work. In 2016, the celebrated Sobey award-winning Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook passed away, and the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death caused Takpannie to experience great turmoil at the loss of this family friend. They both lived in Ottawa, and Pootoogook was always an encouraging presence to the emerging photographer, mentoring her during an arts internship.
Part of Takpannie’s grieving process was to revisit the set of three inkjet prints Our Women and Girls are Sacred (#1–#3) she had made in 2016, creating the fourth image in 2018. Here, the composition is slightly different. Rather than a close-up, eye-level sight, we are viewing the figure from an angle that is from above and farther away, as though we are floating away from her.
The red smoke was a way of honouring the presence and memory of the lives lost. It represents the spirits of these women – including Pootoogook – and is a way of rendering them visible. The camera captures the memory made visible and, for a fleeting moment, tangible. According to Takpannie, these are “embodied spirits represented through the smoke. It is her.”
With these images, Takpannie seeks to expose the “vulnerability of women on the land.” Using herself as the subject, the artist is shown wearing a black dress which contrasts against the rocky and snowy landscape. Violence perpetrated against Indigenous women goes hand in hand with violence committed against the land, exposing a stark contrast of values between Indigenous cultures and Western viewpoints. Land, meaning nature, and all humans and living beings figure prominently and are equal. The deep systemic injustices to Indigenous women dishonour and interrupt all our relations. Takpannie not only draws attention to this, but also honours the spirits of those women through her fearless photographic endeavours.
Katherine Takpannie's photographs are featured in the exhibition Movement: Expressive Bodies in Art , on view at the National Gallery of Canada until September 10, 2023. Consult the Calendar for related events and performances. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.