Winnipeg artist KC Adams is using her new portrait series, “Perception,” to change how Aboriginal people are seen in this country. Adams, an Oji-Cree whose artwork is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery in Ottawa, has taken photos of Aboriginal people living in Winnipeg. On the first of each paired photo, Adams uses a racist or stereotypical label; on the second photo, she simply describes the person in human terms. The portraits unmask the real people behind the labels, challenging viewers to see Aboriginal peoples as more than “squaws” and “government mooches.”
Adams says she has been playing with the idea behind “Perception” for years, but finally acted on it after a recent controversy surrounding Winnipeg mayoral candidate Gord Steeves’s wife, Lorrie Steeves. In a 2010 Facebook post that resurfaced during her husband’s election campaign, Steeves said she was “really tired of getting harrassed [sic] by the drunken native guys” on downtown Winnipeg streets. Steeves went on the say that “We need to get these people educated so they can go make their own damn money instead of hanging out and harrassing [sic] the honest people who are grinding away working hard for their money. We all donate enough money to the government to keep their [sic] sorry assess [sic] on welfare, so shut the f—k up and don’t ask me for another handout!”
The assumption here, of course, is that all Aboriginal people are uneducated, drunk, and mooching off honest, hard-working citizens and/or the government purse. Adams’s photos deconstruct these types of assumptions by concentrating on what most people don’t see: the hard-working, everyday people who pay their way through school and contribute to Canadian society in a multitude of ways – and who happen to be Aboriginal.
In the first of each paired photo, Adams asked her models to think about what it’s like to be called racist names, or have people make biased, stereotypical assumptions about them. Then, for the second photo, she asked them to be themselves. Kim Wheeler’s first shot – which describes her as a “government mooch” – shows her with a defensive, angry expression. Wheeler told the CBC that she suffered a lot of racism in high school, and was thinking about her own children suffering through the same injustice in her first shot. In the second shot, she is smiling and is described as “A mother, writer, publicist, producer, homeowner, and golfer who paid for her own education.”
Adams says her portrait series is about people being able to label themselves.
Winnipeg mayoral candidate Gord Steeves has said that if he wins the election this October, he would hire 20 new police officers to patrol the downtown, increase foot patrols, and purchase two extra vans to remove intoxicated people from the downtown area. Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told the CBC that Steeves’s comments were “narrow-minded” and reflect the city’s racial and class divisions.
“It’s reflective of an attitude among some people from some of the privileged areas of the city that venture downtown and see things they don’t want to see,” Nepinak said. “We should be offended by comments like that and we should be asking more, a broader vision and a stronger vision and stronger solutions and better solutions … We need better leadership than that.”
Lorrie Steeves has apologized for her comments. Adams says, “We can’t make rash judgements. We have to think of ourselves as human beings. Instead of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it should be ‘we.’”
“Perception” is currently only available online, but Adams hopes to put the portraits on Winnipeg bus shelters to keep the conversation going. Educators can use the paired photos to start a classroom discussion. Simply go to Google Images and search “KC Adams Perception” (and make sure to credit the artist when you use the images in your classroom).