Provocative performance artists 'shocked into silence, which is unusual for us,' by $30K art prize

Winnipeg performance artists Shawna Dempsy and Lorri Millan are the recipients of the 2018 Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction, worth $30,000.

Manitoba Arts Council honours Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan on their 30th year of making art

Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey, seen in front of a photo of their 'Lesbian Park Rangers' alter egos, began working together as a performance art duo in 1989. (Lyza Sale/ CBC)

In their 30th year of creating art together, Winnipeg's Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan are still driven by social justice — and the work they've created based on that has earned them a major arts award.

"It would be great if our work wasn't still sort of on-point somehow, that we felt dated, but I think some of the concerns are so present still," said Millan.

The duo has received international accolades for their performance art, which is largely presented through a feminist and lesbian lens — with a sense of humour.

Now, they've received a major honour at home in a $30,000 prize from the Manitoba Arts Council.

"We couldn't believe it at first — just sort of stunned," said Dempsey. "Shocked into silence, which is unusual for us."

The Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction is handed out every two years to recognize the impact of an artist's work.

Dempsey and Millan were nominated by Winnipeg artist Alexis Kinloch, who wrote in her nomination letter she put their names forward because of their commitment to risk-taking through art.

That was incredibly controversial then and continues to be because women's bodies are in many ways still a battle ground.- Shawna Dempsey on the duo's performance art piece We're Talking Vulva

Among their best known work is We're Talking Vulva, which started as a live performance and was turned into a 1990 music video in which Dempsey donned a vulva costume and rapped about female genitalia.

"That was incredibly controversial then and continues to be because women's bodies are in many ways still a battle ground," she said.

The duo have also travelled across Canada, and to Australia and the U.S., with Lesbian National Parks and Services.

Manitoba's "Lesbian Rangers" recognized in a big way

CBC News Manitoba

3 years ago
Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan are this years winners of the Manitoba Arts Council Award of Distinction. 2:23

In the performance art piece, the duo, "in full uniform as Lesbian Rangers," travelled to various locales, including festivals and parks, to "challenge the general public's ideas of tourism, recreation, and the 'natural' environment," according to the duo's website.

Armed with "informative brochures and well-researched knowledge," the Lesbian Rangers create "a visible homosexual presence in spaces where concepts of history and biology exclude all but a very few."

Previous winners of the Manitoba Arts Award of Distinction include visual artists Diana Thorneycroft and Aganetha Dyck, filmmaker Guy Maddin and Manitoba Theatre for Young People founder Leslee Silverman.

CBC Archives: Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan - Heartland

CBC News Manitoba

3 years ago
In 1998 Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan spoke about their art and activism. 7:29


Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor


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