Art as medicine: LaFond paints the picture of violence against Indigenous women & girls
by Caitlin Reardon
With a simple but impactful color palette of black, white, and red, Western Massachusetts artist Nayana LaFond paints works that are not only visually strong, but emotionally striking as she raises awareness for the common, yet under-reported, issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women.
LaFond is an enrolled citizen and member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, with connections to First Nation Communities, Quebec and Nova Scotia. While previously running a record label and cafe, and working as a curator in galleries and museums, Athol-based LaFond has been an artist her whole life. Making her art, she said, “It's more like breathing and surviving.” Her project “Portraits in Red: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls” (MMIWG) is a dedication to remembering victims of violence against Indigenous women and people, an assault that continues to affect Native women at large.
LaFond started the project on May 5th, 2020, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. She found inspiration from posts surrounding the issue in a Facebook group called “Social Distance Powwow,” an online community dedicated to preserving Indigenous tribes’ cultures through talent and art.
The MMIWG movement is represented by a red handprint over the mouth, a symbol that illustrates the lost Native voices, the lack of coverage in both the national media under-reporting and the lack of urgency and lack of investigation by law enforcement.
The statistics of violence against Indigenous women are stunning. Murder is the third-leading cause of death for Native women, making the rate of murdered Native women 10 times higher than the national average. Four out of five Native women experience violence in their lifetime.
In a report surveying 71 urban cities, the Urban Indian Health Institute found 506 MMIWG cases, with 98 cases marked as having an “unknown status” (UIHI). The UIHI also found that 95% of MMIWG cases go uncovered by the media, with only 116 out of 5,712 cases recorded by the Department of Justice.
The Facebook group’s posts made LaFond reflect on her own family’s experiences with the issue, as well as her personal experience as a domestic abuse survivor, which she says is “a small but significant piece of the greater picture.”
Murder is the third-leading cause of death for Native women, making the rate of murdered Native women 10 times higher than the national average.
LaFond asked a family member if she could paint a portrait of one woman’s Facebook group post at no cost. She agreed, and LaFond painted the portrait using only black, white, with the #MMIWG’s signature red handprint handprint over the mouth. The red is a deliberate choice as most Indigenous communities believe that spirits can only see the color red. “Lauraina in RED” was then created.
The painting was posted to the Facebook group and gained about 2,000 reactions overnight. LaFond’s next portrait of a mother and daughter gathered about 3,000 reactions. “We really connected and had a very similar story between us. So just by doing that, I kind of had a sense of that, just those two portraits, were making some sort of an impact,” she said.
The project quickly gained traction online. Offering to paint any missing Indigenous woman’s portrait, LaFond received 25 requests on the first day. “I just kept painting them and painting them and painting them. And it kept snowballing after that,” she said.
LaFond also noted that, although she usually never painted portraits before the project, the portrait style is significant in its mission itself: “You just automatically assume this person is important. I want you to realize that these people are important,” she said.
Many of the portraits are selfies, a quality that actually helps maintain the timeliness of the issue. “I like that they are [selfies] though, because I think it gives a sense of “nowness” to it. A lot of people really think this is an issue of the past, so if I can create images that are obviously current, that does help (raise awareness),” LaFond said.
LaFond has painted over 110 portraits, each in black and white with a red handprint over the victim or family member’s mouth.
Black-and-white work was always in LaFond’s wheelhouse. She studied at Greenfield Community College and Massachusetts College of Art, specializing in black and white photography before she decided to stop pursuing higher education in art. “When I decided to focus on painting, I started to incorporate [black and white] into it and it became just part of my visual language,” she said. “It just lent itself to this project. In a weird way, it was almost like all my previous work was preparing me for this.”
The process has developed over time but has cemented itself as she has continued painting. A victim’s family will reach out to LaFond and ask her to paint a loved one’s portrait. From there, LaFond has a conversation with the family where she gains a backstory on the subject. “Each person has different needs. In some tribal belief systems, you're not supposed to paint the person after they die, you can't represent them in an image or by name. So in those instances, I might paint a living family member in honor of them,” she said.
One thing LaFond was set on since the beginning of this project was that no one is to profit from this work. After she shows the portrait with the family, LaFond gives them free prints, as well as the legal rights to the painting’s digital file. When the time comes to decide what to do with the original, the family has a say. “I think it’s just important to be gentle-handed…and completely transparent,” she said.
“It has to be medicine, and medicine should be free...”
- Nayana LaFond
“It has to be medicine, and medicine should be free,” she continued.
The #MMIWG portrait project has brought healing to families and has extended its powers to LaFond herself. Although the topic is heavy and weighs on LaFond both physically and mentally, the project positively impacted her own family, specifically her grandmother. “Art for me has always been therapy,” she said.
MISSING & MURDERED
INDIGENOUS WOMEN & GIRLS
About 4 out of 5 Native women have experienced violence.
Native women were about twice as likely than most other women to experience violence.
Native women face murder rates 11 times the national average.
The murder rate for Native women is about 3 times more than that of most other women.
98% of Indigenous people experience violence in their lifetime.
There is only a 6% prosecution rate.
- Nayana LaFond website
Another aspect of healing LaFond pointed to stems from how interconnected the MMIWG cases are. “All of the stories are related in some way. They'll all overlap, including my own family stories overlap with many of them. That creates an odd sense of community,” she said. LaFond also noted, “I've actually gained quite a number of people who now call me family, which is really nice.”
She cites the sense of loss, victim-blaming, and frustration from the lack of law enforcement action as “things that are completely universal,” she said. “Every story is obviously different, and unique. But there are so many things that tie them all together.”
“All of the stories are related in some way. They'll all overlap, including my own family stories overlap with many of them. That creates an odd sense of community.”
- Nayana LaFond
The response to this work from the public has been “extremely positive,” LaFond said. The University of Massachusetts’ Augusta Savage Gallery in New Africa House presented some of the portraits as part of its spring exhibit from January 2023 to May 2023. Associate Gallery Director Alexia Cota talked about how special the opportunity was to have LaFond’s work presented in Amherst, as LaFond used to intern at the UMass gallery.
“Nayana’s portraits are just so incredibly powerful the way that she paints people, the way that she's chosen to make them black and white with just the red highlight,” Cota said. “As I see people walking through the space, they're really taking in each portrait.”
The project remains a powerful force in its intention to educate people about violence against Indigenous women, as the portraits are spread across the country in museums and gallery exhibits. In June 2023 “Portraits in Red: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls” was on a Pacific Northwest coastal tour that is set to continue through 2037.
The project will be shown in Chicago with the Institute of American Indian Studies as well as the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture in Montana. The exhibit will be at the Springfield Museum of Art from summer 2024 to summer 2025, with additional exhibitions in southern Vermont and Boston.
“I hope that the project continues to do good things and to have a positive impact. It's sort of taken on a life and an entity of its own at this point,” LaFond said. “I hope that it continues to do that, and that the families always have that positive sense of healing from it.”
PHOTO CREDITS: Pictures courtesy of Nayana LaFond.