The Fabric Of Memory

Mourning And Loss Find Physical Form In Kati Campbell's Memorial For Vancouver's Missing Women

As more murder charges have been brought against Robert Pickton, the families of Vancouver's missing women are raising the idea of creating a memorial, a physical marker where they might mourn their loved ones. At the same time, a local artist has undertaken a memorial project of her own, one that seeks to offer a measure of comfort and condolence. Kati Campbell, whose critically acclaimed, concept-driven practice ranges across photography, sculpture, video, text, and installation art, is creating 67 Shawls as a way of acknowledging the grief of the close relatives of the women who have disappeared from the Downtown Eastside over the past two decades.

"I was thinking really hard about how to deal with these losses in a way that does not add to the media spectacle," Campbell says, at work in her crowded ground-floor studio. "What could I give...that would be a real aid to mourning?" Her project--her gift--comprises 67 richly embroidered shawls, one for each missing woman, to be presented as privately and unobtrusively as possible to their mothers or close female relatives. "I think of them as mourning shawls," Campbell says. "They're meant to be something one can wrap oneself a consolation, and a kind of mirror image of the act of holding an infant in one's arms."

Campbell, who has exhibited nationally and internationally and been active in artist-driven public-art projects, has taken on many feminist themes and issues in her art. These include gender roles, parent-child relations, the politics of representation, the backlash against feminism both inside and outside the art world, and the conditions of work and procreation for women. In an installation at the Western Front in 1990, she also addressed psycholinguistic aspects of misogyny and masculinity in the context of the 1989 Montreal Massacre. That work, titled Symptom, employed minimalist metal forms, an old wooden table, and brief passages of text to convey its political message. It was startling in its simplicity, and in the blood-red colour of its walls.

In her current project, which can be seen at the Richmond Art Gallery until January 15, the implications of violence against women find another expression: Campbell is wedding meaning to form in a much more personal and consolatory way. "Grieving is something that goes on for years and that is private in nature," she says. "I wanted this work to be something that had real use value....Not a symbol or a gesture but something that could really be used."

She spreads a prototype shawl across a table. It's made of soft, fine, pale-pink fabric, and is machine-embroidered in the same shade of pink along three of its edges. Subtle and monochromatic, the embroidery reveals itself on close scrutiny as 130 lines of text, a long scroll of words and phrases that include Shining One, Full of Grace, Innocence, and Plenitude. These are the meanings of the given names of Vancouver's missing and murdered women. And naming, here, seems to be a form of reclaiming.

"What does it mean to name our daughters?" Campbell wonders. "There are all those aspirations and hopes that we have for our children...and then, perhaps, those lives begin to take a very different course. I wanted to bring things back...for the families, to a gentler and more humane way of thinking about their children." A way of thinking, she says, that includes the immense sense of potential that every child brings into the world. Referring to the apparently gruesome fates of many of the missing, Campbell adds, "I wanted to retrieve the whole issue back from the horror."

While researching her project, she looked at four different missing-women Web sites, including those of the Vancouver Police Department and the Turtle Island First Nations. "The very idea of a definitive list is complicated," Campbell says. There are conflicts between official and unofficial counts, and disagreements in establishing a time frame. "The complication of the numbers tells you so much about the whole situation," she adds, alluding to how marginalized the missing women are and how slow officials have been to acknowledge their disappearances.

Once she'd compiled a list of 67 women (including the 22 Pickton has been accused of murdering), Campbell began poring over dictionaries and etymologies for the meanings of their first and middle names. "The most prevalent middle name of all of the women is Louise--it turns up at least a dozen times," she says. "Louise means 'brave warrior', so it's a wonderful refrain that works through the piece."

When the shawls are delivered to the mothers of the missing (through an intermediary, maintaining confidentiality), Campbell will include notes identifying the lines of text relevant to each. "It's not just about reading the meaning of your own daughter's names, but reading them in concert with the whole notion of naming," she says. "Each meaning eddies out beyond itself."

A subject Campbell is reluctant to broach is the link of grief she has with the mothers of the missing and murdered women: her first daughter died in an accident at the age of 15 months. This fact was not in her conscious mind, however, when she undertook the project. "In retrospect, I remember that the first time my partner made the connection, I couldn't even see it," she says. But she does agree that her understanding of grief and mourning made empathy possible. Still, an aspect of this work is its address of our culture's refusal to empathize with drug addicts and prostitutes, as if they have somehow forfeited their humanity and their emotional ties.

As if their families have forfeited such ties, too. "The project I came up with is probably my way of trying to think myself into their position and [ask], 'What would I find would be a comfort?' " she says. "But that's the artist's job--to put into the physical realm some kind of internal process."

An installation of 67 Shawls can be seen at the Richmond Art Gallery until January 15, as part of the Thinking Textile exhibition.