Kent Monkman. Conjugating the Past in the Present

Kent Monkman, The Daddies, 2016. (acrylique sur toile, 152 x 286 cm)

Review of Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, presented at the Art Museum of the University of Toronto in 2017, on a Canadian tour afterwards.

The celebrations held to mark the 150th birthday of Canada and the 375th birthday of the city of Montreal have involved a recycling of the past and the development of all sorts of historical narratives that often make heterogeneity into an ideology. Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, presented at the Art Museum of the University of Toronto with support from the government of Canada, gives us, on the other hand, a particularly successful critique of historical construction and the systems that underpin it. It is exceptional in how it reframes and rewrites history from the perspective of the quest for self-determination. The reality and past of the Indigenous peoples in Canada is an area, moreover, in which the boundaries between History and Ideology, on the one hand, and imagination and truth, on the other, have been blurred to promote a certain concept of the nation of Canada.

Here Kent Monkman has taken on the dual role of artist and curator, developing an exhibition around the memoirs of his alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Arranged in nine short chapters, it reinterprets the history of Canada and its consequences for Indigenous peoples. Monkman has brought together a large number of artworks, objects and artifacts from reputed Canadian museums to serve as props in this singular narrative. He has also combined them with works of his own, such as slide shows, objects, prints and paintings. Some of these were made specifically for this occasion while others were borrowed from public and private collections. This exhibition project aligns perfectly with an approach that has been pointing out, for some time now, the consequences of European colonization and the impact of Christianity and proselytizing on Indigenous cultures. It also presents a number of Monkman’s individual works from the past three years.

For this occasion, twelve major institutions loaned archival documents, objects and a variety of artifacts along with works of art relating to Indigenous realities. These include, unsurprisingly, a painting of the death of General Wolff, dating from 1760 and attributed to the studio of Benjamin West, as well as a serving tray reproducing the same scene, which Monkman already used in an exhibition at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery in 2011. Also included are prints and preparatory drawings for Robert Harris’s painting The Fathers of Confederation, executed around 1885 and now lost. Monkman has also brought together works by Paul Kane and George Catlin, two painters who have contributed substantially to the development of the idea of “the Indian” in Canadian culture. There is, as well, the manuscript of Wilderness Kingdom: Indian Life in the Rockies (1840-1847) by the Jesuit Nicolas Point. Ethnological artifacts and documents that were originally intended to show the richness of Indigenous cultures are presented here in ways that expose the stereotypes they convey about these same cultures, particularly with regard to their current situation and survival. To round out the narrative, Monkman has also thrown in an antique rifle, the handcuffs that were used against Louie Sam (a 14-year-old Stó:lo boy from a village near Abbotsford, British Columbia, who was lynched in Washington State in 1884) and “Nanaimo leg irons.” Wall panels listing the lending institutions attest to the systemic way in which the construction of the imaginary “Indian” has denied the reality of Indigenous communities in Canadian history.

Monkman contrasts this official history with works of his that show the various ways in which Indigenous people have been extorted, particularly by being placed under State control and having their resources stolen from them. Denouncing, with humour and irony, the hypocrisy of the colonizers and their policies of assimilation and extermination, he uses slide shows and artifacts of his own making alongside historical and landscape paintings and canvases full of details (e.g. the colourful Hudson’s Bay blanket) emblematic of the trade relations between colonists and Indigenous communities. For example, at the centre of The Daddies (2016), a naked Miss Chief displays her charms before the lubricious gazes of politicians who have met to bring the first provinces into the Dominion of Canada. In The Massacre of the Innocents (2015), the frenetic killing of beavers set in a landscape borrowed from Albert Bierstad (1830-1902) attests to the same sickening greed that fastened upon the resources to be found in a territory considered, by the settlers, to be empty despite the presence of its Indigenous inhabitants. Monkman’s reappropriation of the sublime and awe-inspiring natural landscapes of the American West allude, moreover, to the denial of the existence of the peoples who inhabited the continent long before the arrival of the Europeans. In A Country Wife (2016), John A. Macdonald, an empty bottle at his feet and a glass in his hand, is depicted as indifferent to his mistress sitting beside him, adding conceit and contempt to an all-encompassing sense of avarice.

Quoting religious painting and referring to the emotional charge of the canons of art history, Monkman gives life to the tragedies experienced by Indigenous peoples. The abduction of First Nations children and the abuses they suffered in the residential schools, as well as the plagues of famine, illness and violence that the arrival of the Europeans visited upon their communities—realities that were swept under the carpet—have rarely been so eloquently expressed. With Monkman they have gained the recognition previously denied them and come to occupy their rightful place in History. In The Death of the Virgin (After Caravaggio), Monkman, like the famous Italian painter, concentrates on the grief of the family and friends of a young Indigenous woman who is dying, or has already died. And while stressing the simplicity of the living conditions to which Indigenous peoples have been subjected, in Nativity Scene (2017) he assumes all the roles, like a figure in one of those museum dioramas that feature generic Indians. Likewise, The Scream (2016) equates the emotional weight of Edward Munch’s painting of the same name with the often trivialized suffering that has been the lot of so many Indigenous people.

The artist has also taken pains to situate his own practice (particularly as represented by the works shown here) in relation to his traditional culture, to displays of Indigenous individuals before European and American audiences, and to the context of modern art, whose period of development coincided with many events that negatively impacted the history of Indigenous communities. References to history, landscape and religious painting are supplemented by repeated quotations from works by Picasso and Francis Bacon in which liberties taken in the representation of the human figure correspond, as well, to the violence that Indigenous people have suffered for so many years in urban settings. We see this in Le Petit déjeuner sur l’herbe (2014), Struggle for Balance (2013) and Bad Medecine (2014). Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s alter-ego, constitutes a dynamic appropriation of the various forms of public display that Indigenous people have been subjected to, as objects of curiosity in European court circles and forms of mass entertainment, and in movies that have fleshed out the colonial imagination’s idea of the New World.

The informal structuring of this body of work around three animal figures—the buffalo, the beaver and the bear, viewed as resources or threats by the Europeans—contrasts with Indigenous spirituality. For in it, animals assume desirable individual qualities and represent the eternal recurrence of the cycles of life, which are opposed to linear history. Full of these accumulated ruins and debris, Monkman’s work constitutes a fork in, and an overturning of, perspective. As part of many public and private collections, his works operate as a kind of Trojan horse, contributing to the artistic recognition of Indigenous ways.

(Translated by Donald McGrath)