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Dene artist creates virtual reality video commemorating missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls


A Yellowknife-born artist has created a video that is virtual in design but dedicated to a tragedy that is all too real for Indigenous communities.

Tlicho Dene artist Casey Koyczan collaborated with the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) and Vancouver-based rock band Small Town Artillery (STA) to make the music video for their song "Trauma Below."

The song honours the memory of Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or went missing along Highway 16, or the "Highway of Tears” in northern British Columbia since 1970. Most of the disappearances haven't been solved and only a handful of cases have led to criminal convictions.

Dene Tlicho artist Casey Koyczan created the virtual reality graphics for the video of "Trauma Below" by Vancouver rock band Small Town Artillery. screengrab image

The video was released on YouTube on June 22, the day after the summer solstice and National Indigenous Peoples Day, “a significant marker for Indigenous people and communities across Canada,” NWAC said in a news release.

“The summer solstice symbolizes a time of renewal, of rejuvenation, and of growth.”

Koyczan, who lives in Winnipeg, created virtual reality (VR) graphics for the video using a program called Tilt Brush, one of the many tools in his artistic array.

The VR graphics of unidentified human figures in red dresses set in misty forests also matched the purpose of the video in honouring the memory of the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

“I had a meeting with the NWAC and we agreed not to show any images of actual victims or even any images that would resemble victims. But we agreed to show images of women in the red dresses, and it was going to the concept of remembrance and empowerment,” said Koyczan.

Red dresses have emerged as a symbol to remember and raise awareness of MMIWG in Canada.

“The video is inspired by the Highway of Tears,” Koyczan said. “Setting up scenes of women or LGBTQ people in red dresses in various scenes, like a mother holding the hands of a daughter, a daughter with her hand on the shoulder of the mother or people on the street protesting. One scene that was heavily inspired by the NWT was a person scraping a moose hide. And there was a scene of a person making a fire.”

NWAC provided statistics to Koyczan that are interspersed throughout the video in three-dimensional blocks of text, related to the disproportionate rates of violence faced by Indigenous women and girls and the systemic nature of the violence that requires urgent action.

“The NWAC (also) submitted photos of protests and people at pow wows and ceremonies. I thought it would be a good mix to speak to the empowerment and the fight for justice,” Koyczan said. “Overall the video has a heavy feeling because it deals with important issues. It was a very emotional scenario for me to work on in VR, but that's what it called for.”

Koyczan's art about Indigenous rights and struggles for justice goes back several years.

His "Gone but not Forgotten" installation was made from pieces of driftwood he collected himself. It commemorated victims of violence whose bodies were found along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers around Winnipeg. That installation was displayed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

"Residential Values" was a live performance painting where he used a hockey stick to shoot pucks covered in red, white and black paint at a canvas. It communicated the inter-generational effects of residential schools and the racism that Koyczan and his father faced while playing hockey.

For an upcoming project he will work with Travis Mercredi, a digital media artist from Fort Smith, to create an independent video game.

“We applied for funding for the video game project to develop our team and to create incentive. The concept is basically inspired by the myths, stories, legends and visions of the NWT passed down by Elders. We also want to do a heavy dream-like feel so it feels like you're in a dream. We'd like to keep our team all Indigenous.”

Koyczan hopes to release the game in chapters but said it would be at least a year or two until it will be finished and released.