Content Warning: This story contains details about residential “schools” and lives that were lost within the institutions, as well as other discussions of colonial trauma. Please read with care.
An exhibition honouring the 215 children whose unmarked graves were uncovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) is inhabiting The Cube at the Kamloops Art Gallery (KAG) from April 15 to June 23.
Johnny Bandura: The 215 is a collection of 215 portraits imagined by and created in artist Johnny Bandura’s garage-turned-home studio after the presence of children’s remains was confirmed at KIRS in 2021.
Bandura is a Qayqayt First Nation (New Westminster) member who grew up in Kamloops and Hay River, N.W.T. He told The Wren he painted the portraits to cope with the devastating news of the confirmation of the existence of the children’s remains and to reckon with the fact that his grandmother attended and survived KIRS.
Since the children’s remains were detected at KIRS, The Wren’s sister publication IndigiNews reports that “evidence of hundreds more unmarked graves have been detected at sites across the country, in the ongoing work to find closure and expose the truth of Canada’s genocidal legacy.”
The findings uncovered through an investigation led by Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc in 2021 are still a difficult subject to contend with for many of those whose relatives attended the so-called “school.”
The exhibit aims to humanize the children who have become known as The 215 colloquially. Bandura says he never intended for the project to draw the kind of attention it has since he shared the first few portraits on social media.
He says he takes issue with the repeated use of the number 215 to describe the findings at KIRS, as he feels it has resulted in people dehumanizing the children whose graves were uncovered and who senselessly lost their lives at the so-called “school.”
“[These kids] were individuals,” Bandura says. “They had names, came from families and had an upbringing before the residential school system.”
“I think what I was trying to get across [by painting the portraits] was the idea that they weren’t just a number, they were actual people … and they didn’t have the opportunity to grow up and [pursue] any kind of careers or have a future whatsoever,” he continues.
“I thought I’d take a shot at creating a future for them.”
While working on the exhibit from his home in Edmonton, Bandura says he imagined who and what each one of the children could have grown up to achieve if they hadn’t been forced to attend KIRS.
“The garage door was open for the most part while I painted,” Bandura explains. “I’d see anything from police officers to firefighters drive by, delivery people, pretty much anybody. That’s where my inspiration came from, as well as from people in my personal life and my family.”
Each of Bandura’s portraits features a face rendered in black and white embellished with pops of colour to signify the role each child might have stepped into in adulthood.
As the KAG explains on its webpage, the portraits show some subjects wearing traditional Indigenous regalia while others wear recognizable clothing or uniforms seen daily in our communities.
Bandura also portrayed people with creative careers, from artists and musicians to mimes and clowns. He says it was important to include jokesters in the project because laughter is a huge part of Indigenous culture.
“I wanted to ensure that [some kids] were characterized as being funny. So many kids are funny before they get to a certain age and start having to hide who they are to try to fit in. I wanted to make sure the joy kids have was carried through in some way.”
Bandura says he is grateful the paintings have been shown and continue to be shown across B.C. and Alberta.
“I’m glad that they’re leaving the message with people that something has happened here, and not just here, but all across Canada and the United States, and we can’t turn our backs on it. By continuing to show my paintings, I feel like they’re helping to keep the memory of [the deceased children] alive.” Bandura says.
The KAG is inviting community members to join in celebrating the opening of Johnny Bandura: The 215 with a seated artist talk on Saturday, April 22 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. followed by a casual reception Admission is free and friends are encouraged to join. Prints of Bandura’s work are also available to order on his website.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s 24-hour Crisis Line can be accessed at 1-800-721-0066.
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