They’ve performed as rangers for the “Lesbian National Parks and Services,” as a Medusa mashed up with Margaret Thatcher, and—perhaps most famously—as a talking, singing, human-sized vulva.
Years before sexual orientation was officially protected against discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act, they were making films like A Day in the Life of a Bull Dyke, What Does a Lesbian Look Like? and Object/Subject of Desire—the latter of which screened at MoMA in New York as well as women’s centres in Sri Lanka.
From their home base of Winnipeg, they have made works that reach around the globe, installing a midway staffed by seemingly laid-off stockbrokers on Toronto’s Bay Street in 2009, holding a retrospective at Kunst-und Theorieprojekte in Frankfurt in 2008 and representing Canada at the third Istanbul Biennial in 1990 with We’re Talking Vulva.
Now, after some 30 years of making groundbreaking (as well as often hilarious, poignant and pointed) art together, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan are being recognized with a $30,000 Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction. Organized by the Manitoba Arts Council, it’s an award for the highest level of excellence and long-term achievements of an artist in the province.
And it’s the first time a duo—rather than an individual—has won the award.
Asked how their collaboration has managed to sustain itself over three decades, Millan and Dempsey, in a phone interview, are frank: “We had to break up as lovers—that helped.”
But there’s more, of course.
“I think we have realized collaboration is not a 50-50 proposition,” says Millan. “It is 100 per cent mine and 100 per cent Shawna’s—it’s 100 per cent meaningful and invested for both of us, and it’s something better than what we could have done on our own.”
“I would say the work is better with both of us being present in it,” says Dempsey, “and I think that is why we stuck it out—because we realized we could make better work. And who doesn’t want to make better work?”
That impetus to make “better work” was clear from the start. When they met, both were inspired by “feminist foremothers” actively working and teaching in Canada, like Vera Frenkel and Toby MacLennan, as well as a vibrant cabaret performance scene in Toronto (where Dempsey first trained) led by figures like Tanya Mars, the Clichettes, and Sheila Gostick.
“I had done a performance called Object/Subject of Desire in the late 80s, and there were elements of it that weren’t really working,” Dempsey recalls of their first collaborations. “Lorri and I reworked that piece together, and around the same time, Lorri started writing the film script to We’re Talking Vulva—which is a performance I had done in ’86—and translating that performance into music video.”
Of course, in the decades since Dempsey and Millan made those first works, treatment of genital anatomy and feminine desire in art has changed considerably—at least in some lights. At the most recent edition of Art Basel Miami, Elle found that the most coveted Instagram was a neon vagina by Suzy Kellems Dominik, with other high-profile works by Vanessa Beecroft, Joan Snyder and Ruby Neri putting forward related imagery as well.
Yet these days “it can be two steps forward one step back,” Dempsey reflects. “We still see, in the US, abortion rights being seriously threatened… Even still, women’s bodies are still contested and women having knowledge and power over those bodies still pushes buttons for a lot of patriarchal societies—including ours.”
Even We’re Talking Vulva, from 1990, still occasionally stokes controversy, she says.
“So when I watch We’re Talking Vulva now, I’m conscious that I am watching my younger self perform,” Dempsey says, “And I think, sadly, that a joyful depiction of female sexuality is still something we need more of.”
“That observation may be true of a lot of our early work,” Millan adds. “There are so many aspects of the political concerns of our work that have not quite resolved yet. So we just keep plugging along.”
That “plugging along” currently includes working on a new series of videos that revamp sci-fi B-movie clichés. The duo is also planning a site visit to the Cloisters in New York at the invitation of a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And they’re continuing to tour performance pieces, like Big Wig, in which Dempsey performs as a decapitated Marie Antoinette holding her own head. (“It’s really about the failures of democracy,” Dempsey says.)
Receiving the award at this point in their lives—which, in humorous Dempsey and Millan form, will officially take place in a ceremony at the Polo Park Bowling Centre in Winnipeg on June 20—does prompt reflection on many locations in time and space for the pair.
“We’re middle-aged now, and there’s a lot more grey areas as we age—literally and figuratively,” Dempsey says. “We are interested in the intersections of science and nature. We are interested in how to build more just societies. We are interested in loneliness, and the power of the being alone, and the power of the collective.”
“There is so much about who we are and what we have done” that has to do with “the amazing people here in Winnipeg,” says Millan. “Everybody from sound engineers to actors to scenic painters to video co-ops: there is just this tremendous group of people that we have worked with now for 30 years. The city itself has really been instrumental in us continuing to be artists and us thriving as artists.”
Dempsey and Millan were nominated for the award by Winnipeg artist and writer Alexis Kinloch. The Award of Distinction is now provided biennially by the Manitoba Arts Council. Past winners include Diana Thorneycroft (2016), Aganetha Dyck (2006) and Guy Maddin (2005), among others.
This article was corrected on June 6. The original copy mistakenly identified Sheila Gostick as “Sheila Gossett.” We deeply regret any confusion this error may have caused.