This article was originally written for Rasmuson Foundation.
Amber Webb grew up in Dillingham and remembers Alaska Native women disappearing, often without explanation or justice. These experiences stuck with her and ultimately inspired her to create a giant qaspeq — a traditional Native hooded garment — illustrated with hundreds of hand-drawn portraits of missing and murdered indigenous women in Alaska and the Lower 48.
Webb’s qaspeq is over 10 feet tall, and its creation has been a very personal project for the Yup’ik artist. Webb illustrated each woman using Sharpie pens, taking an average of three hours to draw each one. The artwork brings light to the violent toll brought upon indigenous women.
“I felt like I couldn’t do anything,” Webb said. “It was partially an emotional response and partially ‘This is what I can do, so this is what I’m going to do.’”
Growing up, nobody in Webb’s family was creating art, but it was something she came across later down the road. She always had an interest in portraiture, and as the years went on, she became more drawn to Yup’ik art.
According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, over 5,700 Alaska Native and Native American women and girls were reported missing as of 2016, but the U.S. Department of Justice only documented 116 of those cases. Initially, Webb wanted to illustrate 396 portraits on the qaspeq, but as time went on, the project changed. By fall 2019, Webb had drawn nearly 200 portraits and is shooting for 300.
“I didn’t really anticipate emotionally how challenging it would be to do that many portraits and read that many stories in a short time,” Webb said.
She finds the women mainly through the Sovereign Bodies Institute, but family members have reached out and shared their stories with Webb personally, too. Webb also learns about missing women through social media and asks their families if she can incorporate their photos into the qaspeq.
“It really is the kind of project where you have a conversation with somebody about their relatives and they’re sharing something painful with you and then you stay connected with people after that,” Webb said. “I didn’t anticipate that — how large the reach would be and how many people are doing really good work that I would be able to meet.”
And while the project was supposed to be completed in May, it’s been an ongoing endeavor for Webb.
“It’s actually kind of good that it’s not finished because as I’m meeting people, they’re giving me names of relatives and I’m able to include them in the process of touring it,” Webb said. “And also, there have been a couple of people that went missing in places and their posters were up while it was traveling, and then I was able to put them in the project.”
Webb has exhibited the qaspeq in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Dillingham and Utqiaġvik and plans to display it in Bethel and Nome. She’s broadened her reach outside of Alaska, too, taking her art-as-message to Nebraska, Florida, North Dakota and Iowa.
Her work has not gone unnoticed. When the band Portugal. The Man performed their homecoming show at the Alaska Airlines Center in 2018, Webb shared the stage to speak about a prototype of her qaspeq. The Anchorage Museum purchased the prototype.
Since then, her local tribal and regional corporations have awarded her their Citizen of the Year awards, AFN awarded her its Warrior of Light Award, and she presented the qaspeq to the Inuit Circumpolar Council.
She also took the qaspeq to the Alaska State Capitol and presented it to Alaska House Special Committee on Tribal Affairs. Webb was there to hear House Resolution 10, which urged the United States Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 without an exemption for tribal governments in Alaska. In addition, the resolution supported Savanna’s Act, which aims to reform law enforcement and justice protocols regarding missing and murdered Native women, and to highlight the crisis.
“That was really, really remarkable … they put it right on top of the portrait of founding fathers — like, over them, which was kind of cool,” Webb said. “They covered them with these portraits of these Native women, which was really an interesting thing to see.”
The funding provided by Webb’s Individual Artist Award was a “jumping-off point” to a myriad of other opportunities and connections, like her appearances with the qaspeq outside of the state.
Webb says the stories she’s heard and incorporated into her work have stayed with her. “I carry that as much as the project does,” Webb said. “Reading that many accounts of extreme violence and disregard and just being really aware of how huge this issue is and how it’s tied into all the systems we interact with — it’s so tangled in that.”
Webb says she’s realizing more and more that systemic influences allow the violence and apathy, and they need to be faced first.
“I’m trying to take [the qaspeq] to D.C., and I want to say, ‘The United States government needs to acknowledge what this is that’s happening — and that it is a direct result of genocide,’” Webb said. “It makes you realize — we were at war with the government and they did take from us and they’re still taking from us, even if it’s an inconvenient thing to recognize.”