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Features / October 14, 2014

Possible Utopias in Winnipeg Feminist Art Symposium

Over the weekend of October 3 to 5, Winnipeg artist-run centre and mentorship program Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA) hosted its 30th-anniversary symposium, “Who Counts? A Feminist Showdown.” Throughout the conference, participants took in lectures, debates, panels, art crawls and dance parties. It’s rare for an organization to have the chance to publicly contemplate its own philosophical underpinnings and reason for being, and to document, through conversation, the state of its politics in the current moment. To catch up on the weekend’s happenings in Winnipeg, I spoke with a variety of the symposium’s participants, reflecting on the event, MAWA’s legacy and the impact of feminism in forging the future. Here are some of the major takeaways from the weekend’s proceedings:

 1. Feminism is a collaborative practice

“MAWA felt that we really didn’t have the resources to do a symposium,” says MAWA co–executive director and artist Shawna Dempsey. “But our friends in other artist-run centres said ‘let’s do it together!’” The symposium emerged through a collaboration between MAWA and the Manitoba Artist-Run Centres Coalition, in which 17 organizations pooled funding in order to rent space, provide equipment and pay speakers’ fees. Simultaneously, 27 art spaces in Manitoba dedicated their September and October programming to the work of women-identified and Indigenous women artists. Winnipeg organizations’ willingness to lend their support to fostering feminist dialogue (which sometimes risks being cloistered or ghettoized in more general art circles) points to a genorosity underlying Winnipeg’s cultural community at large. “It’s a bit of a cycle,” explains Dempsey. “Our legacy of mentorship means that MAWA’s contributed to an art community that isn’t siloed, and the geographic isolation and crappy weather [in Winnipeg] has created a culture that’s enabled MAWA to exist.”

2. Feminism 101 is still sometimes necessary

Despite the enormous potential of the Internet to open up information and space for discussion about feminist politics, in a public inter-generational environment, sometimes it pays to review the basics. Veteran Manitoba-based arts writer and curator Sigrid Dahle and printmaker, writer and zinester Stephanie Poruchnyk-Butler opened the symposium with a lecture titled “On Knowing When to Shut Up and Listen,” which tackled everything from Beyoncé to Tumblr-feminism, and invited audience members to reexamine their own individualized definitions of feminist thinking. It also set a tone for the conference that emphasized careful listening and attentive commentary. “When MAWA asked me to do this talk,” says Dahle, “I was initially reluctant. I mean, my days on this planet are numbered. So why not ask a young feminist artist to speak instead? I wanted to perform, to enact, intergenerational listening and conversation. We could learn a lot from one another. I know I certainly did.”

3. Dissent and opposition are central to productive dialogue

Conference atmospheres often invite either compulsive consensus or competitive academic oneupmanship. MAWA organizers decided to turn these notions upside down in an Oxford-style debate on the question “Is Art Gendered?” Inviting presenters to argue, contradict and respectfully dispute each others claims, the debate gave space for what arts writer, organizer and Images Festival artistic director Amy Fung described as a “silly way to present information, a send-up of the stuffy white dudes doing their Oxford debates.” Yet, as Fung admits, “it’s a good way to start a conversation—sometimes, we all end up agreeing and there’s no conversation, and nothing new is said.”

 4. A good conference needs nachos and dance parties

Rather than line up back-to-back events, MAWA provided lots of breathing room and time for discussion between its scheduled talks. Conference organizers also supplied DJ lessons (courtesy of DJ Mama Cutsworth) for arts administrators from various Winnipeg organizations, who each performed sets for the conference’s “Throwdown Hoedown.” Particular standouts were DJ Wanda and DJ Koop (Art City‘s Eddie Ayoub and Josh Ruth), who arrived at the party both dressed as artist Wanda Koop. There was also a nacho bar for peckish participants. Several of the panellists I spoke to referred to MAWA’s conference atmosphere as wedding-like, with young feminists and 70-year-olds sharing in the dance floor and the discussion. Larger art centres might have something to learn from this kind of conviviality in Winnipeg.

5. Race and class still have to be pushed

Artist, writer and biologist Seema Goel and Amy Fung drove home the intersections of race and class with gendered oppression as the “yes” side of the “Is Art Gendered?” debate, while panellists such as artist and SAVAC artistic director Sharlene Bamboat and Metis curator, writer and academic Cathy Mattes emphasized the need for generous consideration of and meaningful support for artists in the diaspora and Indigenous artists. But these contributions were not seamless or effortless. Instead, they resulted from a recognized need on the part of panellists and organizers to continue to push discussions on multiple intersecting oppressions. Against the backdrop of Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women—a trauma that has been particularly felt in Winnipeg—symposium participants grappled with the very real consequences of systemic racism upon their communities. On the subject of anger, Mattes advocated for a balance between an impassioned and insistent stance on issues of social justice and the understanding that anger is often only taken seriously coming from those with the privilege to have their voices heard.

6. The absurd can be an important game-changer

During the “Is Art Gendered?” debate, the opposition-side duo of performance artist and technologist Praba Pilar and artist Kristin Nelson chose to contend with the very terms of the topic, namely “Art” and “Gender.” By turning the proposition upside down and arguing that we should strive to live in a world beyond the narrow confines of strictly delineated art and gender (and wearing capes while doing it!) they created what Pilar calls “a carnivalesque encounter with the unknown.” “As an interventionist performance artist,” she explains, “I wanted to do an infectious refusal of the very terms of the debate. And the audience went crazy! Because we wanted to approach this question in a way that is absurd and illegible, but also tackles serious questions. In that illegibility, perhaps we can search for new ways of thinking. It’s gotta be funny—maybe in our laughter we can swallow the bitterness.”

7. Imagination can be a radical act

Sharlene Bamboat dedicated only nine seconds of her “What is Feminist Art?” talk to non-feminist stances, deciding instead to focus on artists (including Coco Riot, Nahed Mansour and the artists in last year’s “Incident Light” exhibition at the Blackwood Gallery in Mississauga) who reveal “the possibility of reimagining history and historical narratives—both greater histories and the smaller moments of intimate lives that make up communities.” Imagination was a recurring theme across several presentations. Academic and curator Joan Borsa showed examples of works that evinced a feminist position in their request that viewers be involved in a subtle negotiation with their experience of the object. Of Amalie Atkins’s video Listening to the Past, Listening to the Future (2014), which Borsa presented as an example of a feminist imaginary, she said, “there’s a retrieval of knowledge—something that is lost or out of view is being returned, and its building as an energetic force.” On Sunday, Sheila Spence (who was recently named administrative and development director at Plug In ICA in Winnipeg) closed the conference with a talk that echoed some of the world- and community-building that had taken place throughout the conference, asking participants to contemplate questions like “what dreams do we share?” and describing the importance of “the will to stay with the discussion.”

As a celebration of an organization that has spent a vibrant 30 years nurturing its artistic community, this sense of imagination and insight into the possibilities of the future seemed a fitting bookend to many of the panellists. “It’s a bit strange to say,” says Dempsey, reflecting on the symposium, “but it seems like the idea of utopia is coming back. It felt like utopia’s possible.”