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December 6, 2021

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Back to school with Miss Chief

Indigenous artist Kent Monkman turns the tables on the Europeans

Kent Monkman, 51, runs his Toronto studio like a classical European atèlier. On any given day as many as six assistants accompany him as he works, translating small sketches and photo images onto large canvases or painstakingly brushing in highly detailed landscape elements. The paintings themselves have the seductive allure of the grand luminous 19th century scenes so familiar to regular museum-goers. Draw closer, however, and the vast landscapes or epic scenes of brightly-hued figures draped in billowing fabric transform into a barrage of unexpected, at times highly sexual imagery that sends your mind reeling with associations.

Monkman is a prominent painter of Cree-Irish ancestry whose reputation has soared in recent years. He's one of the very few artists who, at mid-career, has seen his work enter the auction market, the near exclusive domain to the very famous or the long dead. His paintings are in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Glenbow Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He's represented by top galleries in Toronto, Montreal and Santa Fe, New Mexico where his work fetches $50,000-$150,000 and up. Not bad for a kid from Winnipeg.

Growing up

He self-identified as an artist at age four and was encouraged by his school-teacher mother to flourish creatively, further blossoming when he was one of two students chosen to receive free Saturday art classes at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Believing he needed a plan to earn a living from his drawing, he went on to study at Brampton's Sheridan College. A short career as an illustrator for hundreds TV commercials improved his drawing and taught him to work fast.

“That skill is something I really value,” he says. “I’m rarely hindered by the inability to express an idea. If I can imagine it, I can draw it.”

He went on to a decade of "pushing paint around" in an effort develop his own style as an abstract expressionist. Around 2000 he found Cree figures began to creep into his work often in the form of male bodies grappling with each other. The images soon evolved into those of cowboys and Indians performing acts you would never see between The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

Though he grew up in Winnipeg's mainly white neighborhood of River Heights, he spent the bulk of his time with his father's Cree family. His great-grandmother spoke Cree almost exclusively and, after suffering the trauma of residential schools, was one of only two of 13 siblings to survive into adulthood. As a boy, Monkman was moved by the dioramas of pre-contact Indigenous life at the Manitoba Museum, but was disturbed by the dissonance between those peaceful images and the drunk Indigenous people he saw tumbling out of bars outside the museum. As an adult, he realized that museums like the ones he loved as a child played a role in perpetuating the story that Indigenous people were a vanishing race with a past but no future. By adopting the style of 19th century European painters like of Paul Kane and George Catlin, he could turn history on its head by adding his own rollicking figures to those romanticized images and disrupt its racist, homophobic, colonialist themes, creating the presence of an Indigenous world view inside paintings made by Europeans.

"I wanted to work within the conventions to shock or surprise people," he says. "They feel like they're approaching a familiar form of landscape picture-making, but as they spend time with it, they're dislocated. They have to question everything they've received. That was a kind of disconnect I wanted the audience to have."

Monkman, who identifies as Two-Spirit, an Indigenous term for a person whose gender falls between male and female, expresses his mixed-race, mixed-gender identity through an alter-ego persona he calls Miss Chief Share Eagle Testicle. Miss Chief is a trickster figure who challenges hierarchies and colonized sexuality by subverting the Western gaze which eroticizes Indigenous people, turning it back in a gesture of "you've been looking at us but we've been looking at you." Miss Chief came into being when Monkman decided to put himself in his own paintings, in playful mockery of the 19th century painters' habit of including themselves in self-adulatory attitudes on their own canvases. "Eagle Testicle," is a play on "egotistical."

Inspired by the singer Cher, Miss Chief also appears on stage as performance art, or film, mediums which Monkman says can sometimes communicate a message in a more direct and raw form than a painting can. In one notable performance in the soaring lobby of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in 2007 Miss Chief appeared in billowing smoke to the final Chords of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and evoked the spirits of 19th century artists Eugène Delacroix, Paul Kane and George Catlin. The evening ended in “a dance to the berdache [a colonialist term for a two-spirit person; considered derogatory] -- we are about to bring it back, more unaccountable and disgusting than ever” in which the crowd of 500 joined in. The trickster and her dioramas function not to resurrect a past as it was but to wreak havoc with order and reason in order to represent and affirm Indigenous subjectivity, agency and survival or rather, "survivance," a term that refers to an active sense of presence and the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction or a survivable name.

Three years ago, Barbara Fischer, the gallery director at the University of Toronto Art Museum invited Monkman to do a response exhibition to Canada 150 for the museum, and he jumped at the chance. He wanted to increase public awareness of the fact that the last 150 years corresponds directly with a devastating period of incarceration, institutionalization and attempted cultural erasure for Indigenous people, to "revisit this very harsh period in history and lens it through my own artistic vision." Part of that vision included a dialogue with the forms of abstraction that revolutionized painting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He references various figures from Picasso's cubist paintings, for example, finding the "butchering of the female nude" useful as a representation of violence towards Indigenous women.

After spending a year traveling across the country selecting Indigenous artifacts from various museum collections, he put together a show that integrated the objects with paintings of historic Canadian events re-imagined to include the Indigenous perspective. The Daddies is modeled on Robert Harrison's 1883 rendition of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference Fathers of the Confederation, a dull painting featuring 23 men in velveteen suits, a reproduction of which hangs in Parliament (the original was destroyed in a fire). In Monkman's version, a naked Miss Chief is poised on a Hudson's Bay blanket-covered wooden box in the center of the painting, back to the viewer, the focus of the room though not everyone chooses to look at her.

The Scream, also painted for the response to Canada 150, went viral on FaceBook as soon as Monkman posted it, attracting 300,000 views in three days. The scene depicts nuns, priests and red-coated mounties wrenching children away from their grief-stricken parents' arms, a scene which went deep for the many Indigenous people whose lives were irreparably damaged by the residential schools.

Monkman's message is many-layered but uncomplicated: Canadians need to educate themselves about Indigenous people and be open-minded about Indigenous culture. Now that the Truth and Reconcilliation Report is available, the information is there, he says. He encourages Canadians to read the report and to make steps towards reconciliation, emphasizing that this has to come from Canadians, and not from Indigenous people.

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