The people behind the portrait

KC Adams photographic installation Perceptionopens dialogue on stereotypes downtown

Winnipeg’s downtown will be soon be home to a powerful art exhibit debunking racial stereotypes.

From television sitcoms to images chosen to accompany the day’s news, racial stereotypes exist everywhere and we are constantly confronted with cultural labelling. Winnipeg-based artist KC Adams’s latest work, Perception, aims at challenging these stereotypes head on.

Frustrated by the racial tension surrounding the 2014 mayoral race (recall the slur-filled rant on social media made by candidate Gord Steeves’ wife), Adams, 43, was inspired to take a stand.

In Missouri, Michael Brown had been fatally wounded in a police shooting and a Twitter campaign started highlighting media portrayals of black youth. Adams liked the immediacy of the project and how the social media platform allowed for an open conversation.

“I had been thinking about how First Nations people are stereotyped and how when they are featured in the media, it’s often a negative representation,” Adams explains. “I decided to have First Nations people label themselves instead.”

The empowering project began on Facebook and Twitter and quickly gained attention from the media. Mentioning in an interview that she wanted to see the black and white photographs plastered around the city, Adams’s wish was granted when James Patterson, operations manager for Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art gallery, decided to fund the installation and present it across the city.

On March 19, Adams’s 30-plus images of First Nations citizens will appear on billboards, bus stops, in the skywalk and on posters around Winnipeg. Focused mostly in the city’s core, the installation aims to get optimal attention from the downtown business crowd as well as suburbanites on their way to Jets games and concerts.

Adams’s work features a photo of the subject frowning while recalling a racial slur that has been directed at them, with the slur printed on the image. The photo is juxtaposed with an image of the same subject smiling, accompanied by a list of how that person defines themselves.

The impact of the photos is immediate and the feedback Adams has received has been overwhelmingly wonderful, she says. Adams herself was deeply affected by the project.

“There were a couple stories that made me cry; my mother’s being one of them,” Adams says. While taking the portrait her mother’s eyes welled up and she started crying recalling how when she was young other children would call her a “dirty little Indian.”

“Every time I do a talk about that work I start crying because she’s still holding onto that pain.”

Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) executive director Stefano Grande describes Perceptions as an important education project worth supporting.

“Downtown is perhaps the busiest area in the city so it’s a good place to communicate community messages,” Grande says. “It’s quite a powerful piece and I believe it will make people stop and think twice about how we judge people.”

The installation hopes to promote a dialogue that needs to continue.

“It’s hard when there is a wall up and the thinking is us against them,” Adams says. “This work is about humanizing the individual and not lumping an entire race under a stereotype.”

Go to urbanshaman.org for more information about KC Adams’s work.

Published in Volume 69, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 18, 2015)

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