Early in the musical documentary film The Last Waltz we see Ronnie Hawkins coming out onto the stage of the Winterland Ballroom. The music begins to play. Hawkins may be a musical legend but he is nervous, about to sing a song. You don’t want to blow it when you know you’ve got the largest audience of your entire career.
As he starts he calls out “big time, boys, big time!”
While Kent Monkman may have had similar apprehensions as he prepared to step out on the biggest stage of his career in front of his biggest audience there’s no evidence of fear or nerves. We’re witnessing a very self-assured and masterful debut on the world stage.
As Zoe and I came into the Metropolitan Museum yesterday I knew we’d see the paintings in the corridor even before getting tickets & entering the museum, the two big pieces so prominent right now as to be almost parts of the skyline.
Maybe I sound like I’m exaggerating?
The Met installation consists of two paintings of identical size. A pair of paintings, each 22 feet by 11 feet. Or 6.7 meters by 3.35 meters function on an epic scale that dwarfs most rooms and the viewers. For matters of history & cultural mythology?
As I have previously observed when speaking of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, his/her canvases, or the body parts portrayed therein: size matters.
His ongoing artistic project is meant to redress a colossal imbalance as he has previously observed, in the program to his 2017 show “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience”:
“I could not think of any history paintings that conveyed or authorized Indigenous experience into the canon of art history. Where were the paintings from the nineteenth century that recounted, with passion and empathy, the dispossession, starvation, incarceration and genocide of Indigenous people here on Turtle Island?”
And if I may digress for a moment to remind you of the obvious, “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle” plays on two key words, namely “mischief” and “egotistical” with a little tickle for good measure. And if you see anything else in there? good for you.
Monkman is a post-modern artist, making inter-textual references to cultural images & icons to populate his paintings. We already saw this in his Shame & Prejudice show, both in a painting and later plates sending up the famous Canadian painting of Robert Harris’s painting “The Fathers of Confederation”.
Or in Death of the Virgin, with a respectful nod & a wink to Caravaggio.
For the big project in NY Monkman / Miss Chief have given us a pair of paintings, mistikôkosiwak (Wooden Boat People), namely Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People.
I may be wrong to put them into a kind of historical order but that was the fortunate sequence I encountered them in, coming into the museum. I think of the “welcoming” painting coming first, and creating the circumstances –the cultural and physical genocide of the Indigenous Peoples as well as the madness of the ongoing colonial enterprise—that would necessitate the redemption implicit in the “resurgence”.
The “welcoming” painting is a kind of rescue drama, not far from the Thanksgiving myth that is so well—known, travelers coming ashore hungry and needing shelter from the stormy sea that has overturned or destroyed their vessels. There is turmoil, some in the background crying for help as we see people cling to the hull while a shark circles. We see a black man still in his chains struggling to come ashore, perhaps to show that slavery too was one of the things the colonial adventurers brought with them to their so-called “new world”.
The gentle parody at one side has Hiawatha who appears to be sitting in contemplation in the “welcoming” painting.
The second painting would seem to be the Indigenous response, the Resurgence of the People being a bold declaration of defiance, resilience in the face of genocide.
Monkman echoes Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, an iconic portrayal of American heroism reframed and reinvented in “Resurgence” . Miss Chief takes Washington’s place, as the boat bravely pulls away from a rocky island of male militarism complete with a white-power flashing goon in the background.
My first impression online under-estimated the impact of these works, partly because online is a poor substitute for the impact of big paintings in person, partly because I didn’t really understand what Monkman was doing & saying in these works. For an audience that has no awareness of the indigenous genocide—indeed when there is disbelief and even objections to the use of the word as we saw in the recent investigation into missing & murdered Indigenous women—one has to proceed with caution.
Monkman has his biggest audience. How would you proceed if you had the chance to preach an important message to people who don’t even know they need to hear a message, people without any awareness or readiness to listen?
And so Monkman had to proceed with caution. If his message were too radical? He might be ignored if he even had the chance to be heard.
This is at one of the most fascinating aspects to the mistikôkosiwak installation. The politics behind the scenes intrigue me even as I’m unlikely to ever know the background. Was Monkman given stipulations, guidelines? The fact that he was invited at all blows me away. I’m impressed by their wisdom & good taste, a bold choice.
The fact that he has managed such a dignified yet activist statement in a conventional context is miraculous. So yes the paintings look really cool online but see if you can see them in person. They’re that much more powerful, watching hundreds of people look up in awe and wonder.