More than 9,500 Indigenous people were reported missing nationwide in 2021, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. The plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls led to a national inquiry in Canada and official acknowledgement of “race-based genocide” against Indigenous people there.
As an act of remembrance and healing, Massachusetts-based Indigenous artist and domestic violence survivor Nayana LaFond created “Portraits in Red,” an ongoing series of more than 100 portraits she has painted of missing and murdered Indigenous people and their loved ones. A red handprint is usually painted on the mouth of each black and white portrait, a symbol that represents the silencing of these Indigenous victims of violence.
Forty of those portraits are currently on display at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center in Newport, including one of Anthony Tolentino, a 17 year-old member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians who was killed in Salem in 2021. OregonArts Watch previously wrote about the origins of the “Portraits in Red: Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Painting Project” and the exhibit in Newport, which ends on May 7.
LaFond and Anthony’s mother, Cecilia Tolentino, join us to talk about “Portraits in Red” and the impact they hope the project will have.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Early on in the pandemic, the Indigenous artist Nayana LaFond created a portrait in black, white and red as a way to draw attention to murdered and missing Native people in the U.S. It was intended as a single work, but it turned into something much, much bigger. Nearly three years later, she has created more than 100 paintings. She calls the series ‘Portraits in Red.’ It’s an ongoing act of remembrance, defiance and catharsis. Forty of these portraits, some of them focused on people from the Northwest, are on display right now at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center in Newport. It includes a painting of Anthony Tolentino, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, who was killed in Salem in 2021. He was only 17 years old. I’m joined now by Anthony’s mother, Cecilia Tolentino and the artist Nayana LaFond. Thanks very much to both of you for being with us.
Nayana LaFond: Thank you for having me. This is Nayana.
Miller: Nayana, if I could start with you, I’m curious what your idea was behind the very first painting in this series. It was in the early days of the pandemic in May of 2020.
LaFond: Well, a lot of my work has always been about catharsis in some way. I’m also a cancer survivor, so all my work has been about something related to that. On May 5 of 2020, which is the day of remembrance for missing and murdered Indigenous people, I went onto a group on Facebook called Social Distance Powwow, where people were sharing their stories and images. I saw an image by a woman from Saskatchewan named Lorena, and I asked her could I paint your image as my contribution to the group awareness raising that was happening. She agreed. I thought it would just be one for my own catharsis and to contribute, but the response was so overwhelming that it sort of snowballed into this.
Miller: What was the response?
LaFond: When I shared the image back to the group, there was over 2,000 reactions with comments. Then I said I’ll paint one more, and I had over 3,000 to that one. After that I started receiving inquiries. I put out one post that said, ‘I’m quarantined; I’ll paint as many as are sent to me.’ And I received 25 the first day.
Miller: At what point did you know that this was going to be an ongoing project that, in some ways, was going to take over your professional life?
LaFond: It sort of evolved into that. It, in a way, informed me of what it needed to be. When I first received the first 25, I knew in that moment I couldn’t cherry pick them. From an artist’s perspective, I couldn’t say, ‘Well yours has better composition. I’ll paint yours.’ I had to paint them all because these are families with people who are missing or were murdered. I couldn’t say no. So it quickly snowballed into, I’m going to paint them all and then they never stopped coming.
Miller: What would people write to you along with the photographs they were sending in to you?
LaFond: It’s all different things. Sometimes it’s just, here’s a photograph, here’s my loved one’s birthday, death day, and they don’t want to say much more. Then other people, I will have an entire conversation where we connect and we talk about their loved one – what happened, how much they miss them, any number of details that they want to share.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the artistic rules that you’ve set out for yourself for this project?
LaFond: This is definitely different than any other work that I’ve done. Previously, my ancestry really didn’t play a factor. In this, I’m connected to it, so it does. And I feel very strongly with this subject that personally I should never profit from it. At this point no one’s ever profited from it because it’s turned into a money losing enterprise if anything. But I set forth rules about myself that it would never form profit for me, that I would always do this for free, that I would meet with every family as much as I could and try to be as sensitive to their needs as possible. I also do not merchandise the images, and I’ve had to follow up with people who did take the images illegally and try to do so. I try to be as respectful as I can with each and every portrait. So I’m treating this less like an art project and more like just medicine and something that I have to do.
Miller: Who is the medicine for?
LaFond: Myself and my family and my community at large.
Miller: Nayana LaFond, I want to hear a lot more from you, but as I noted, Cecilia Tolentino is with us as well. Cecilia, your son Anthony is featured in one of the portraits in the exhibit that’s in Newport right now. As I noted, he was shot and killed in 2021. Can you tell us a little about him?
Cecilia Tolentino: Well, Anthony, like you said, was 17 years old. He was affectionate and versatile. He was eager to start his own business. He was getting ready to graduate and get out on his own, so he was pretty eager about that. But he was an unconditionally loving friend …[inaudible]...
Miller: Cecilia, it’s a little bit hard to hear. It may be that the microphone is a little bit covered up. So I’m wondering if you can get closer to that. It’s been almost two years since he was killed, but my understanding is that the case is still an open investigation. How would you describe your dealings with law enforcement?
Tolentino: …[inaudible]... say it’s been a fight. Like you said, it’s almost been two years, and it’s still ongoing. I haven’t received my child’s …[inaudible]... nor have I received the vehicle that he was in, without any information or explanation of the process on how you can request those things once the district attorney in your state releases them. I feel like I advocate well for myself. I couldn’t imagine how a family who wasn’t able to advocate as well trying to navigate the judicial system. It’s just been a struggle.
Miller: When did you hear about the ‘Portraits in Red’ series?
Tolentino: …[inaudible]... Nayana said on Facebook, on the …[inaudible]… Powwow. And then I didn’t see it again until November when my niece had sent me a publication. It was requesting, if a family wanted to have their loved one painted, to reach out to Nayana. So I reached out, and I sent her my son’s picture. I’m so grateful that she’s doing this for the families. It just, like she said, our community – it brings such awareness. And to me, I think it’s empowered me a little bit and inspired me to make a commitment to myself for my son’s memory and for other missing Indigenous and murdered Indigenous people within the U.S. and Canada.
Miller: Was there any question in your mind that you would want to take part in this? Did you have to wrestle with that question?
Tolentino: Absolutely. That was …[inaudible]... speak Anthony’s name without bursting into tears. So I had contemplated on sending Nayana an email, and I always shut it down. I probably did that like two or three times. If I don’t use my voice to speak on behalf of my son, who is going… [inaudible] …
Miller: Cecilia, we’re going to see if we can get a better connection so we can hear you better because I and our listeners know that some important words are getting lost just because of the technology. So hopefully we’ll hear more from you in just a second.
Nayana, I mentioned in my intro the colors in these paintings: it’s very striking. The people are mainly in black and white, and then there is some red as well. Can you describe your decision to use these very specific colors?
LaFond: Absolutely. In a lot of Indigenous cultures, not all, but a lot of us believe that red is the only color that spirits can see. So, when I receive an image from a family, I will put it onto my computer and isolate anything that is red and keep it red and make everything else black and white and then add the red hand over the mouth, which is the symbol for missing and murdered Indigenous people. It also represents being silenced. But I don’t ever actually cover their mouth. I still paint their mouth because I don’t want to take their voice away.
Miller: What kinds of conversations do you have with parents or brothers or sisters or children? I mean, as we heard from Cecilia, I imagine these families sometimes themselves, even after they’ve reached out to you, they may still be wondering how public to be or trying to figure out what they want to be said about their loved ones.
LaFond: There is often a lot of back and forth about that subject in particular because I want to make sure that I don’t overshare for people. There is obvious apprehension. I would have apprehension, myself, if I was in that position. But usually I just say, whatever you’re willing to share is what I will share. I have to be sensitive to the fact that a lot of these cases are open and you can’t share a lot of details. So it’s really important to take that time and ask: what can I share, what can I not share? And to make sure to stick to that. It’s not always easy as I’m up to 108 portraits. I have to keep it organized to make sure that I stick within those bounds. But the conversations are always heavy, and it’s always difficult. It’s difficult for them. It’s difficult for me. But I think it’s necessary, unfortunately.
Miller: Cecilia, could you describe the photo of your son that you chose to share with Nayana?
Tolentino: Yeah, it’s a photo of Anthony after school. Some days he would take public transportation, the bus, home. And it looks like he was probably on his way to the public transportation and sitting in a courtyard, it looks like at the state capitol.
Miller: Why did you choose that picture?
Tolentino: Because his smile was so moving.
Miller: Can you describe what it was like when you saw for the first time, what Nayana did with that? The painting that she created?
Tolentino: I had mixed emotions. I was a little torn because it takes a bit – for myself, it took a year and a half before I could even speak my child’s name. So I think I felt… It was a powerful moment to see him and know that others are gonna see him and hopefully it’s gonna inspire others to know what this movement is about and to humanize missing and murdered Indigenous people here in the United States and in Canada. So I think it just gave me a little bit more courage and strength to commit, to continue on and to find my fight to help maybe others that are in the same situation as myself.
Miller: Nayana, how much attention has there been from law enforcement or government officials over the years when it comes to missing or murdered Indigenous people?
LaFond: …[inaudible]... is the most accurate thing I can say. There’s a lot of jurisdictional, I guess, shoving it off onto the next person, that happens. There’s a lot of ignoring, victim blaming. I’m learning as I go just by hearing from every family what their story is. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of the same stories that I hear over and over, where law enforcement aren’t responding properly or they’re not taking it seriously or they’re saying that the person somehow got themselves in that position. It’s really disheartening.
Miller: How do you think arts – in this case portraits – can change the equation, can raise awareness of the plight of missing or murdered Indigenous people in a way that other forms of advocacy maybe can’t do?
LaFond: I think all advocacy is important. But through art I’ve found, just by doing it – I didn’t fully understand what effect it could have until I did it myself – but through doing it, I realized that just humanizing each one of these people, putting their face in front of the viewer’s face so that you have to be confronted with this very real human being that’s in front of you and see their eyes looking back at you, that seems to strike a chord with people more than hearing a statistic. The statistics are staggering, but I think it’s easy for us, especially with all of the horrible things that do go on in the world all the time, to hear a statistic and just sort of shove it aside. But when you are faced with someone’s face looking back at you, it’s a little bit more difficult to do that.
Miller: Nayana, has working on this project led you to think about your own family history or your own experiences in a different way?
LaFond: Extremely so. I’m a survivor myself, and I come from a long line of Indigenous people with intergenerational trauma. So through doing this and talking to other families and everything that comes with that, I’ve gained a really greater understanding of how my family was also affected by the same things that all these other families were affected by and that we are all connected in that way.
Miller: As you noted, you created this as catharsis. That’s the word you used for your art even before this particular project. You also called this medicine for yourself and for others. But now that it’s become this ongoing, seemingly relentless multi-year project, is it still cathartic for you?
LaFond: Yes, actually. I think of it as like going through therapy. It’s difficult, it’s painful, but when you walk away you can leave a bit of your own pain with it. So, even though I’m up to 108 and I still have a queue of at least 30 at this moment and by the time I get through those there’ll be another 30, it’s healing. And each time I think I’m going to quit doing this, I’ll get a message from a family or hear someone like Cecilia talk about her son. And then I realize I need to keep doing it.
Miller: Do you now think about your inboxes with some level of dread?
LaFond: Yes and no. I’m certainly not excited to get any messages. That’s not at all a happy thing to receive. But I understand that it’s needed and that maybe this is part of what I’m supposed to be doing at this time in my life. So when I do receive them, I try to open them and listen and make myself available to that family or that family member and just try to be present in that moment with them.
Miller: Cecilia, we heard earlier Nayana’s description of the opaque red handprints that are on the mouths of all the people in these portraits. What does the red handprint mean to you?
Tolentino: To me, red is a powerful color. You know it used to be worn in war parties. I feel like these stories have worth; they’re not going to be silenced. So I think it gives these stories power and value.
Miller: You noted that you couldn’t say your son’s name for a year and a half and that it was difficult at first to look at the portrait that Nayana created. Do you plan to go to the exhibition with all 40 of these portraits, in Newport?
Tolentino: I do. I kinda contemplated whether I was physically or emotionally had the strength to do that, and I’ve come to the decision that I will go and see each one. Why wouldn’t I? Each person is just as important as my son was. So, yes, I’m going to go and see the exhibit.
Miller: What do you hope that visitors there will take away from seeing all of these portraits, including your son’s – reading their names and in some cases learning more about their stories?
Tolentino: I hope that they do learn about the stories, that they do matter. And not just our tribal community but all people that go to see these images. I just hope that they will take the information that they have and do something good or positive from it. So that’s all I can hope is they’ll get more information about all these Indigenous people missing and murdered. I just hope that they can take it and put it back into the universe in a positive manner.
Miller: Cecilia, as Nayana said, she does this, among other things, to help bring healing to her, and she hopes it’ll bring some healing to the families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. What does the word healing mean to you at this point?
Tolentino: Healing to me is probably finding my courage. I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever come to completely heal until I have my child’s things back, especially his clothing. And I just feel like the courage to go on is going to be healing to me.
Miller: Nayana, how long do you plan to keep doing this project?
LaFond: I don’t know to be honest. I made the decision early that I would paint all sent to me and I’ve stuck to that so far. I think most likely this will be something that I’m doing, in the background while I do other things, indefinitely.
Miller: Nayana LaFond and Cecilia Tolentino, thanks very much to both of you for joining us and talking about something that’s almost impossible to talk about. I really appreciate it.
Tolentino: Thank you for having me.
LaFond: Yes, thank you.
Miller: A portrait of Cecilia Tolentino’s son Anthony is featured in Nayana LaFond’s show, ‘Portraits in Red: Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Painting Project.’ The exhibit is going to be on display at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center in Newport through May 7. It will then move on to museums in Ilwaco, Ellensburg, and Yakima, Washington and then on to Pendleton.
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