Questions with no clear answers

Issue 2021, vol. 75

Review of Making Believe: Questions About Mennonites and Art by Magdalene Redekop (University of Manitoba Press, 2020)

What is Mennonite art? Who is a Mennonite artist? Does a Mennonite artist self-identify or is there some inherent shared quality to art created by those of Mennonite heritage? These are not new queries but they run throughout the background, and sometimes foreground, of Magdalene Redekop’s book, so “Questions About Mennonites and Art” seems an apt subtitle as she considers many questions for which there are not clear answers.

From the very beginning, Redekop makes clear the contradiction “at the core of this book: while engaging with art by Mennonites, I will argue that there is no such thing as Mennonite art” (xiv-xv, emphasis mine). Redekop argues against an essentialized identity, vital to any nuanced understanding of a marginalized group. No one person should be assumed or expected to create work about their own racial/ethnic/religious/cultural identity and/or speak for an entire group of people, and yet majority groups in many arenas continue to assume monolithic features of minority groups. Perhaps in part after a lifetime of being questioned by others about Mennonite identity, Redekop wrestles throughout the text with thinking through possible identity markers or shared formative histories in the work of primarily Canadian writers, artists and musicians from Mennonite backgrounds. She denies a singular category of “Mennonite art” but seeks instead to consider “how a Mennonite sensibility is sometimes apparent as a part of cross-cultural dialogue” (41). Redekop borrows the “Mennonite sensibility” framework from Priscilla Reimer, who curated an exhibition of visual art by Mennonites in Winnipeg in 1990, and goes on to suggest that she will listen for Mennonite “aesthetic accents” in the work she considers throughout the book (43).

As a literary critic, Redekop is clearly most confident in the chapters where she engages with what has been described as the “Mennonite miracle” in Canadian literature, which began with Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many in 1962 and reached a high point in the 1980s with the emergence of poets and novelists like Di Brandt, Patrick Friesen and David Waltner-Toews. But while this flourishing has been most widely identified in literature, Redekop takes pains to incorporate a parallel blossoming in the visual arts, particularly noting the work of Aganetha Dyck, Gathie Falk and Wanda Koop, and in the musical arts, as represented by such artists as Leonard Enns and Carol Ann Weaver.

At the same time, Redekop clarifies that this book offers no comprehensive survey of creative arts related to Mennonites. This could be seen as an area for criticism, the apparently subjective manner in which she chooses to include some artists, musicians and writers and not others. Abandoning any pretense of a full survey, however, gives Redekop some freedom in this respect. Still, she seeks to find common cause among the artists she discusses. Throughout the text, Redekop returns to a questioning of art as it intersects with community: If Mennonites are in the world but not of it, how does that relate to how they make art, compose and perform music, and write literature? “If there is one quality that connects all the art that I engage with in this book, then it might be a vision of community accompanied by a confrontation with the problems arising from the fact that any collective identity is achieved by means of exclusion of those who are not part of the group. This is the fly in the ointment” (54).

One of the major strengths of the book is the engaging way that Redekop writes herself into the text, moving between voices and timelines. This is a personal journey, an account of a lifetime of grappling with questions about Mennonites and art. She concedes at one point that the book is, on one level, “an exercise in life writing” (193), and later admits, “I am all too aware that some readers will consider me to be the central case study” (264). While the latter statement sounds reluctant, Redekop’s merging of personal narrative and scholarly exploration has a long history in feminist writing. We might consider it a critical memoir or creative criticism or, most recently in vogue, an example of autotheory. Lauren Fournier’s recent Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism (MIT Press, 2021), describes autotheory as “performative life-thinking,” texts that make one’s self integral to the theorizing of contemporary art and literature (14). Redekop’s integration of cultural histories and personal experiences into her theorizations of what might constitute Mennonite “aesthetic accents” offers just such a multipronged approach, an autotheoretical thinking-through and thinking-with.

Given my own background in art and art history, I was most interested to read Chapter 6, on Canadian visual artists who deal “with the legacy of Anabaptist hostility to images” (255). Building on the subjective style of the earlier chapters, here Redekop positions her choice of artists and artworks as an imaginary gallery in her mind. This is a project I assign to my own students, curating an imaginary exhibition as a way to contextualize and comparatively write about a grouping of artworks. Few exhibitions are comprehensive, but the author (curator) remains apologetic: “I am acutely aware of the limits placed on my efforts to be a hospitable curator. My imaginary gallery is full to overflowing and yet I have been at all times aware of how many artists will be left out in the cold” (298).

As a reader/viewer, I found myself very willing to join in this conceit of an imaginary gallery. Here, though, is also where Redekop’s background as a literary critic might fall a bit short for the artists. In earlier chapters, she engages in sustained analysis, both personal and scholarly, with pieces of literature. When it comes to visual art, however, she focuses primarily on her experience as a viewer, and sometimes offers hesitant, generalized opinions: “I might be wrong, but it is my impression, based on the art that I have seen, that American Swiss Mennonite women make art that is more exuberant than that of their male counterparts” (294). She also moves the visual art discussion back to literature, using Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth to help explain that “art provides a space where we can deal with the crisis of representation by making believe together…” (272). In the context of Redekop’s writing style, it makes perfect sense, and given her training in literature, it is understandable that she should view the wider world of creative arts through the literary context with which she is most familiar. Visual artists, though, might bristle to be “translated” by the writers in this context.

Throughout the book, Redekop seeks out points of humor, jesting and joking that set the stage for her interpretation of artist as trickster. Her historical investigations position the roles of clown, fool and trickster as “alternatives to martyr myths” in Mennonite representation (63). Two Interludes between chapters relate Redekop’s own experiences with clowning, disrupting the scholarly text just as her clowning performances doubtless disrupted expectations of professorial demeanor. The implied connection is that artists, musicians and writers from Mennonite contexts offer a particular lens through which to view our histories and that their interruptions and disruptions might shine a light on areas sorely in need of alternate illumination. As Redekop writes, “The lesson is that the best art by Mennonites does not come from inside the safety of an ethnic or religious community. It is not an art set apart to be enjoyed by a people apart. The best art, rather, happens at the crossing places where tricksters are active and where different visions of community are contested” (153).