Early in the new year, Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach will be hosting a unique exhibit put on by the Mennonite Historic Arts Committee. It is based on a large-scale coffee table book of photography called "Mennonite Village photography: Views from Manitoba". 

Senior curator Andrea Klassen says this exhibit features a beautiful collection of never-before-seen photographs left behind by four Manitoba Mennonite photographers from the early twentieth century. Two are from the East Reserve while the other two are from the West Reserve.

“The photographs that you will see are kind of interesting because they have these painted backdrops,” she says. “Of course, they don't have studios, so they set these backdrops up in people's houses and then they take the photograph. But the photograph is uncropped. And so, you see the living room that that it was taken in or the side of the barn that the backdrop was hung up against.” 

Klassen expects this exhibit to open near the end of January or early February 2024. 

“The striking thing about this exhibit is that many of the photos will be blown up to almost life-size. Some of them will be 8 feet by 6 feet, so you can really walk up to them and look the subjects in the eye and kind of get this very unique view of what life was like in Mennonite villages around that time.” 

Mennonite Photography book.Cover of “Mennonite Village Photography,” the book that was the inspiration for the “Mennonite Village Photography” exhibit. The cover features an artefact from MHV’s collection, a photo from about 1903 from photographer Johann E. Funk. (Photo submitted)

Description of the upcoming exhibit: “Mennonite Village Photography” exhibit features a beautiful collection of never-before-seen photographs left behind by four Manitoba Mennonite photographers who lived and worked in the early twentieth century.

The images are from glass and film negatives stored in institutional archives and family collections. After being scanned and given a new life in print, the photos provide a clear view into Mennonite life and early settlement in Manitoba. 

Professional photographers at this time usually specialized in taking posed portraits against painted backdrops in studios. The Mennonite photographers mimicked that style, but they also captured a much less artificial picture of what existed around them.

Though two of the photographers, Heinrich D. Fast and Johann E. Funk, were encouraged by their respective churches to give up their hobby in preparation for baptism and marriage, all four captured an array of subjects both posed and candid, and the images reveal something of how they saw their worlds.

Even if the men photographed for only a short window of time, their images freeze-frame a distinctive and fleeting period of time in the history of Mennonite village life in western Canada. 

The Mennonite Historic Arts Committee is comprised of a team of specialists on Mennonite history and material culture committed to the preservation, publication, and exhibition of historic Mennonite art forms. Team members include: 

  • Susie Fisher, Ph.D., Curator, Gallery in the Park 

  • Conrad Stoesz, M. A., Archivist, Mennonite Heritage Archives 

  • Roland Sawatzky, Ph.D., Curator of History, Manitoba Museum 

  • Frieda Esau Klippenstein, M. A., Historian, Parks Canada 

  • Andrea Klassen, M. A., Senior Curator, Mennonite Heritage Village 

  • Anikó Szabó, Graphic Designer / Art Director   

The Russländer exhibit will continue to be shown until December 2nd in the Gerhard Ens gallery at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. 

-With files from Michelle Sawatzky


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