In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8, the annual celebration of women’s achievement, the Manitoban is highlighting one of Winnipeg’s most prominent artist-run centres, Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA).
Founded in 1984, MAWA works from an intersectional feminist perspective. Its mandate is to “encourage and support the intellectual and creative development of women in the visual arts.” MAWA also recognizes the wide expanse of the gender spectrum and welcomes cis women, trans women and non-binary participants into all its programs.
Shawna Dempsey, one of the co-executive directors, said the organization works hard “to create opportunities across different sectors of identity.”
“Many of us are subject to more than one oppression, and the way in which those oppressions interlock and overlap are key to our own unique identities.”
“Until we’re all free, none of us are free.”
Dempsey first became involved with MAWA as an artist in 1990 and mentored before becoming a co-executive director in 2008. Since then, Dempsey has seen the organization flourish. With hundreds of current members and 27 different programs in operation, MAWA has something for everybody and has been key in creating many helpful services and projects to benefit local and international artists alike.
At MAWA’s heart is its Foundation Mentorship Program. Active since the organization began, this program partners emerging artists with more established ones for a year to work on their practices by engaging in meetings and activities, culminating in a final exhibition by the mentees.
“Mentorship is core to everything that we do,” Dempsey said, “it can make such a big difference in people’s lives.”
MAWA also operates two main residency programs. The Rural Artist Urban Retreat offers rural women and non-binary artists free housing in the MAWA apartment for up to two weeks, and the Artist in Residence program allows women and non-binary artists from all over the world to work in Winnipeg for one month.
Regarding theory and criticism, MAWA offers a fantastic resource library and has even contributed to literature on art theory and history. In 2017, MAWA co-published Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada, alongside McGill-Queen’s University Press, which is currently entering its second printing. MAWA initiated this project when some of its members realized the lack of contemporary resources on Canadian feminist art theory and history.
“There were specific books that would deal with Canadian feminist performance art […] but not visual arts in all media,” said Dempsey, “so [we] thought, ‘well, for future discussion groups at MAWA, we just need to create our own textbook.’”
Since then, the publishing of Desire Change has made history as “the first book about feminist art, in all media, ever published in Canada.”
MAWA continued to make waves in art education with its Resilience Project, a billboard exhibition featuring works by Indigenous women nationwide. Dempsey mentioned that MAWA followed this up with creating “a kit for art educators about how to use Indigenous women’s art in the classroom to talk about Indigenous history [and] Indigenous perspectives.”
Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, business at MAWA has changed slightly, but it is still going strong.
“Almost all of our programs are online at this point,” Dempsey said, “but, interestingly, we have been able to offer more programs this year than ever before […] it’s been great in terms of engaging beyond Winnipeg’s borders.”
Regarding the importance of organizations like MAWA, she said, “I think the great thing about artist-run centres across Canada is that they’re run by artists, and who better to know what artists need than artists?”
Artists or curious individuals can get involved with MAWA simply by attending its programs, many of which are free and run on a drop-in basis with all-welcome policies.
“There really is something for everybody [in our] programs,” Dempsey said.
“We’re also kind of small and scrappy, and we just keep doing our thing,” she said. “I continue to be inspired by the MAWA community, by my co-workers and by the programming MAWA provides.”
“I’m always learning on so many levels thanks to MAWA.”
For information about MAWA and its upcoming programming, please visit mawa.ca.