Arts & Entertainment
3 min

The art of transformation

Coming out was a creative force for Humboldt Magnussen

Credit: Kalle Lindmark

Humboldt Magnussen’s off-kilter art often involves masks, hidden identities and images of transformation.

The 24-year-old artist, who grew up in rural Saskatchewan, says coming out was marked for him by a very bad reaction from his family and a retreat into the fantasy world of TV.

“I have been very influenced by my childhood TV viewing, watching shows like The Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Sailor Moon. In those TV shows there is always an element of transformation: the loser teenager uses some magic and then becomes some sort of superhero. I wanted there to be similar ideas around transformation in my work. I guess when I first started I thought I could transform myself through the work.”

A graduate of Concordia’s fine arts program, Magnussen is now preparing his latest show, Queering the Terrain, which opens at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto on Thursday, Nov 10.

For this show, which will include an opening-night performance, Magnussen reaches back through his short history
as an artist to conjure the new work.

“In one of my previous shows, I performed a ceremonial burial of my family, one urn per family member. They didn’t actually die. But I was trying to use art to transform my life in a way. At the time I had this huge grudge on them because they treated me just awfully when I first came out, and years later I still hated them for it. So I wanted to kill that old family and start fresh.”

This led Magnussen to create a series of characters, each one donning a different helmet that he would make.

“I started making characters for the helmets and they became more detailed. I had this idea that maybe they are a group of people who are looking for community, who are working to build a culture. It felt really honest for me to take these characters and then use other influences, such as queer history, my family history, struggles for freedom, and let them have a journey.”

Magnussen adds that part of what he’s doing stems from his own naiveté.

“I feel a strong commitment to talk about queer issues in my work. After studying in Montreal I moved to Sweden for a year, and suddenly I found myself marching in a gay pride parade in the town I was in. At that moment I felt very privileged for a gay person. I guess I have for a long time felt rather uneasy that I never worked for my rights, or that I’m not doing enough to help future generations of queer people.

“I was on YouTube the other day and I watched this heartwarming video of these gay people in the US trying to get married, but they can’t because of the laws. And it hit me that when I was a kid I always thought gay people could get married. By the time I found out that they could get married, the only reason I realized it was because it had just become legal.”

This prompted Magnussen to put paint to canvas to herald those who had blazed a trail for him and other queer youth.

“There I am, at some gay bar in Sweden, and I kiss a cute boy. I’m having a great time, but I feel shitty as well, because I didn’t really do a lot to have that right. I’m trying to honour all the queer people that have done a lot of the difficult work and made it possible for me to kiss this boy on a night of Pride in a cool gay bar in Sweden.”

Magnussen also argues that honesty in his work is first and foremost.

“I have a gay voice, and I have had terrible experiences as a result of it,” he says. “I was told when I was younger that in order to get a deeper voice I would have to punch myself in the throat several times a day. So I would do that every so often — actually punch myself in the throat, which now seems really cruel and awful. So in this show I reflect upon my voice and how homophobia was mixed into that, too.”

At the very essence of Magnussen’s show is what he sees as a basic message: “Homophobia follows you if you are running away from it. But if you turn around and face it, it is actually not so bad.”

The Deets:

Queering the Terrain
By Humboldt Magnussen
Runs to Dec 22
The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives
34 Isabella St