Note: All images of paintings and installations taken from Kent Monkman’s Website
Whether in a suit or in stilettos as his two-spirited trickster avatar Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Cree artist Kent Monkman never fails to cut a dash in the way he uses titillating wit to critique Canada’s treatment of indigenous communities. Monkman has become internationally recognized for his provocative and technically astounding large-scale paintings, reimagining the presence of indigenous people and landscapes as they have been represented—or rather misrepresented—throughout history by white colonial artists. Many of his paintings are a direct response to famous works, such as 19th-century American painter William Ranney’s Daniel Boone’s First View of the Kentucky Valley, which shows a group of white men surveying an idyllic and seemingly uninhabited landscape. Monkman’s response, by the same title, shows the same idyllic landscape, this time occupied by a half-naked white man being penetrated by Miss Chief.
William Ranney and other 19th century artists depicted themselves as heroes in their own paintings, valiantly conquering indigenous landscapes and communities. By including Miss Chief (in all her mischievous glory) in every painting, draped in feathers and beaded garments, and seducing or being worshipped by white men, Monkman confronts the colonial fetishization of the indigenous body by reversing the gaze from within and turning it directly on the settler artists. Indigenous communities in settler paintings were often portrayed through the scope of the colonial obsession with indigenous cultural purity. They were not shown without the colonial painter’s perception of traditional garb (though the distinct fashions and traditions of the various indigenous communities went ignored). Though most indigenous communities post-contact used tools and materials brought by the settlers, European painters rarely portrayed them in relation to any sect of modernity or European influence. Monkman challenges this by having the white figures in his paintings dressed in traditional colonial clothing, or sometimes little clothing at all, thus turning the european identity into something singular and fetishizable.
Monkman’s most recent exhibition, entitled Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience (showing at the McCord Museum until May), is a journey through the last one hundred and fifty years of indigenous experiences in Canada, guided by Miss Chief Eagle Testickle herself. Told in the form of excerpts from her imagined memoir written in a small booklet provided at the beginning of the exhibition, the narration serves as a throughline of the works and an emotional anchor as the viewer moves through an exhibit that is both playful and solemn. Miss Chief’s narration prompts the questioning of what these delightfully indecorous paintings are saying, not allowing the viewer to become lost or complicit in the mere pleasure of viewing.
When I first entered the exhibit, I felt as though I was in on the joke, as though I was laughing with Monkman at the crudely funny and beautifully rendered painting. The first painting displayed in the gallery did not necessitate a confrontation with the viewer, especially a viewer such as myself with liberal politics. In Bears of Confederation a picturesque landscape is shown, peppered with old, white men being fucked by bears, and one of said white men being whipped by Miss Chief in heels. I could almost fool myself into thinking that I am not complicit in the oppression of Indigenous communities. By laughing at the paintings and by finding humour in white men in compromising positions, I was proving that I’m on the right side of history, that I “get it”.
As I progressed through the exhibit, the pieces become less and less palatable, and I was unable to continue to fool myself out of my role of a settler as paintings began to depict more violent realities of indigenous history. At times, Miss Chief was lost for words, as though experiencing the art with me. The Scream shows RCMP officers, priests, and nuns ripping screaming children from the arms of their crying parents to bring to residential schools. On the wall opposite the painting are empty antique cradleboards, as well as cradleboards depicted in metal and chalk outlines, creating a space for the children that were lost and killed. Miss Chief’s narration reads: “This is the one I cannot talk about. The pain is too deep. We were never the same.” After entering this room I was unable to continue to ignore my complicity in the continued mistreatment and cultural genocide of indigenous communities in Canada.
Monkman’s paintings act as an affirmation of indigenous culture, erasure, pain. In rethinking colonial depictions of Indigenous Peoples, he is figuring them into art history, allowing them complexity. In his lecture at the McCord museum in February he spoke of an experience he had in the Winnipeg Museum on a class trip. He described seeing a diorama of indigenous people, every one of them with the exact same face, set up the just like the primate diorama. How could it be, he wondered, that an alive, breathing, and fighting culture is being displayed in the same way as extinct mammals, as though they are indecipherable relics? Some of the final works in Shame and Prejudice are dioramas of indigenous people on a reserve and each figure has Miss Chief’s face, including a naked infant and the beaded logo on a Blackhawks jersey. The inscription above the scene reads “amor vincit omnia,” a title taken from one of Caravaggio’s paintings, meaning “love conquers all”. Miss Chief is writing herself into the past, present, and future of art history.
Monkman’s exhibit was released as a sort of birthday present to Canada, a response to the one hundred and fifty years since Canada’s confederation and the subsequent sesquicentennial celebrations. It is time for Canada and all its settlers and occupants to grow up, face both past and present mistakes, and assume responsibility in the horrible reality of what the past one hundred and fifty years have looked like for indigenous communities all over the country. Seeing this exhibit can be a first step in claiming personal agency in the fight towards reconciliation, as well as becoming familiar with information made available through the NCTR (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation). In an interview for Border Crossings Magazine with Canadian journalist Robert Enright, Monkman said:
[The Truth and Reconciliation hearings] communicated truth about the horrors that had largely been silenced. This information is now available widely to everyone and it represents a turning point because so many people had never had their stories heard before. So there’s acknowledgement, but we still have a long way to go in order to reach the next point, which is restitution. Canadians need to come to reconciliation about their own history and about what happened to Indigenous people through the colonial policies of the Canadian government.
Explore archives, reports, and information from the NCTR.