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Opinion

‘Do we still have to talk about gender?"

Shawna Dempsey, a Winnipeg performance artist and co-executive director at MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art), gets that a lot.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Shawna Dempsey in Arborite Housedress.</p>

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Shawna Dempsey in Arborite Housedress.

She’ll be talking all about gender at this month’s Art Talk/Art Walk at the Free Press News Café (Friday, Sept. 2, 6 p.m.). She’ll discuss the current position of female artists in Canada and the entrenched attitudes that sometimes sideline women’s art. She’ll also be looking at creative ways artists and organizations in Winnipeg are approaching the stubbornly persistent issue of inequality.

Historically, the barriers faced by female artists were imposing and palpable. Often women were barred from the academies and schools that made up the art world. Drawing classes with nude models were deemed dangerous to ladies’ delicate moral fibres, and the demands of motherhood were seen as incompatible with the all-consuming passions of the creative life.

Those obvious obstacles are gone, Dempsey suggests, but subtler difficulties persist, even into the 21st century.

"There’s a feeling that gender is over, that we’ve achieved equality, particularly in the art world where we’re supposed to be more enlightened," says Dempsey. "But when you look at the statistics, when you look at the measurables, women do not have equal opportunities."

Women now make up more than half of art-school graduates, Dempsey points out, but are less likely to work in senior positions at art institutions or attain tenured positions at art schools. They also earn less than their male counterparts in Canada. According to Hill Strategic Research’s analysis of 2006 census data, female artists earn 31 per cent less than male artists (a dismal $22,600 annually, compared with $32,900 for men).

SUPPLIED</p><p>Dempsey as a flight attendant in Transport.</p>

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Dempsey as a flight attendant in Transport.

Consider the stats on solos shows by women at the National Gallery of Canada. "This is the premier art museum in the country, which it could be said is creating the canon, holding the history of the nation, in terms of visual arts," Dempsey explains.

"In the 1980s, only 18 per cent of contemporary solo shows were by women. In the ’90s that went up to 31 per cent, but then in the ’00s, it went down again to 21 per cent."

Why these gaps? Work by women artists is sometimes viewed as messy or overly emotional, Dempsey believes. The concerns and forms of male artists are often defined as universal, while subjects explored by women are dismissed as niche interests.

For example, MAWA runs programs for artists who are mothers. "I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why does MAWA do so much for mothers? Mothers, mothers, mothers,’" Dempsey says with a laugh.

SUPPLIED</p><p>The Cross-Cultural Craft Program at MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art).</p>

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The Cross-Cultural Craft Program at MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art).

"And I say, well, they are a sizable part of the population. And they may make work about motherhood that you’re not interested in, but, again, a sizable part of the population does share that experience."

Along with outlining some of the problems of inequality, Dempsey will be talking about solutions.

MAWA provides educational opportunities for female artists, particularly through mentorship programs that pair established artists with emerging artists.

"It means that every female artist doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel," Dempsey points out. Mentorship helps pass along knowledge, experience and professional contacts.

"It’s absolutely transformative."

Dempsey will also be talking about her own art. Since 1989, she has been doing performance and multimedia work with longtime creative collaborator Lorri Millan. Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin once described the duo as "the iron fist of feminism in a fun-fur glove." Sharp, funny and subversive, their work takes a creative, sometimes controversial approach to gender, sexuality, representation and power.

In fact, Dempsey’s art looks at many of the ideas and issues she deals with in her day job at MAWA.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

   Read full biography