Home » How Did Winnipeg and Its Art Become such a Big Deal?

How Did Winnipeg and Its Art Become such a Big Deal?

Here is part one of fascinating article written by former Winnipegger Edwin Janzen, an artist and writer currently based in Ottawa. The article was previously published in Drain magazine – you can read the full article HERE, (under Related Essays) or stay tuned as VoCA publishes it serially, every weekend.


A work by the Royal Art Lodge. Image: booooooom.com

The Power of Myth
How Did Winnipeg and Its Art Become such a Big Deal?

By Edwin Janzen

“Winnipeg is an oubliette,” says Guy Maddin in his mythical memoir “My (Other) Winnipeg” in Border Crossings magazine.

It is? The conception of a cold city populated by sleepwalkers, perpetually astonished at its own age may work for the city of Maddin’s mythologies. Yet, this author left Winnipeg for Montreal five years ago quite ready to forget the place — but forgetting Winnipeg has been impossible.
It is impossible because, in the realm of art nowadays, Winnipeg is everywhere.


A still from Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. Image: mmimageslarge.co.uk

Upon arriving at Concordia University art school in 2004, I encountered student shows exhibiting tiny sketches of sad robots, miniature watercolours of demented bears and stuffed humanoid figurines with missing limbs sewn out of rags. Clearly, I reasoned, there were a lot of Montreal art students who wished they were Royal Art Lodge members.


Another image by the Royal Art Lodge. Image: booooooom.com

Moreover, mentioning that I’m from Winnipeg has never harmed me. Quite the opposite — it is a rustic, oddly exotic pedigree. I could not have predicted that hailing from this frayed, downmarket loser of a city would elicit perky reactions like: “The city produces such awesome art!” Or: “Everyone from Winnipeg is so nice, so cool!” Or even: It must be such a wonderful place!”

And it’s true — well, the part about the art, anyway. Certainly Winnipeg’s arts scene hums along, punching well above its weight. In fact, artists and other creative souls are one of Winnipeg’s primary cultural exports. Montreal’s art scene, probably like those of Toronto and Vancouver, is well populated — colonized, really — with Winnipeg expats.

“I hate Winnipeggers,” my Montreal friend Drew announced as I introduced him to a Winnipegger at a Montreal art opening.
“Oh? Why?” we asked.
“Because Winnipeggers meet other Winnipeggers — and then all they do is talk about Winnipeg!”
Drew has a point. Winnipeg navelgazing can become a little much. No one talks about Winnipeg like Winnipeggers can, and do. For that matter, talking about Winnipeg is a phenomenon that’s quickly moving from being a conversation to an industry.

Increasingly, it’s not about Winnipeg’s spry little arts scene anymore, or about how Winnipeg artists are receiving wider and wider international attention. The art isn’t just from Winnipeg — the art itself, and the conversation that surrounds that art, is increasingly about Winnipeg.
Can’t say the fish aren’t biting. Two words to the doubters: My Winnipeg. Guy Maddin’s masterful “docufantasia” has basically taken the already burgeoning Winnipeg mania and supercharged it.


A still – with frozen horses heads – from Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.
Image: cineclubesdecordoba.com

Winnipeg itself has become a cultural product. And exactly how a city like this — with its flotillas of mosquitos, its blistering cold, its malignant racism, its backwater economy — ever managed to turn itself into a cultural product sought out by the wider world certainly is a question that merits attention.

Stay tuned for part two of the article The Power of Myth: How Did Winnipeg and Its Art Become such a Big Deal? next weekend on VoCA.

To watch a trailer of My Winnipeg, please click HERE.

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