Art Canada Institute presents Kent Monkman

The title of the lecture was “Art Canada Institute presents: The Making of a Masterpiece– Kent Monkman.”

Monkman is an enormous star, famous far beyond the immediate milieu of art dealers and galleries.

But I have no real idea who he is. Before tonight I had never seen him in person, never heard him speak, had no sense of who he is.

No wonder Koerner Hall was packed.

Let me repeat, he’s a star. When he came onto the stage tonight to be interviewed, there was a huge ovation.

“The Scream” is surely the most cited image by a Canadian artist of the current generation.

I remember feeling dizzy at the Shame and Prejudice show in 2017 at University College, as though the ground had opened up under my feet. I hadn’t really understood the urgency of the Indigenous use of the word “genocide”: until then.

His art is a curious mix, suggesting a complex personality. Monkman is ambiguous in his persona, his tone, and so much more, when you encounter his alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.

Underlying the serious and ironic statements is an ongoing project, that can be nicely captured in a quote from 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?

The works for the big 2017 Toronto show, and especially in his commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY, can be understood as an attempt to redress that balance, to fix that great injustice of lies and omissions among the canon of art and by implication, in what we know and understand.

The two great pieces (mistikôkosiwak (Wooden Boat People), or Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People) take the canon of art as exemplified by works housed in the Met, and then reframe them, in his own work.

I wrote about the experience of seeing them in NYC, in early 2020, but wanted to know more.

Kent Monkman (Cree, b. 1965). Welcoming the Newcomers, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 132 x 264 in. (335.28 x 670.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848–1907). Hiawatha, 1871–72, carved 1874. Marble, 60 x 34 1/2 x 37 1/4 in. (152.4 x 87.6 x 94.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in memory of Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, 2001 (2001.641)
Kent Monkman (Cree, b. 1965). Resurgence of the People, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 132 x 264 in. (335.28 x 670.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist

I’m not sure how we’re to see these works, but it’s a wonderfully bold approach. As a genre it’s something very original, not unlike parody if we consider the way something pre-existing is reframed in the new form. The brooding sculpture Hiawatha you see (above) for instance recurs in a corner of “Welcoming the newcomers”, while Miss Chief boldly leads the vessel in Resurgence of the People”, in a heroic echo of Washington crossing the Delaware. Miss Chief is at least a trickster figure in being a disruptor, forcing us to revisit our shared assumptions about culture.

I can’t miss the prescience of his images in the background of that painting, those macho yahoos with guns who turn up on the news with heart-breaking regularity over the last couple of years.

Emanuel Leutze (American, 1816–1868). Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Oil on canvas, 149 x 255 in. (378.5 x 647.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897 (97.34).

The big commission for the Met can be read as a species of adaptation in the same way that a film such as Clueless is an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I’m mindful too of the Jane Austen, given that Monkman was himself playing with the title in his show “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience”.

Monkman is very humble, very generous in sharing credit, with a wonderful sense of humour that you can see in his work. I think there’s a lot more he may show us, considering what we saw in his 2018 show “Miss Chief’s Praying Hands”.

Lest you be too cocky that we Canadians are so much more sensitive or aware of Indigenous issues than Americans? We got smacked down brilliantly. Yes Monkman did say that Americans are more conscious of blacks and Latinos than Indigenous issues. And then he told us of a Canadian woman who, when his name was mentioned said “Honey it’s the gay Indian!”

Ouch. Yes there are racists in this country too. So perhaps we should tread carefully, not be too quick to act “holier than thou”.

Pictograph porn. The gallery staff were super-serious but I was laughing.
Canadians will recognize Robert Harris’s painting “The Fathers of Confederation”, parodied here.

Tonight I picked up a copy of a new book about his two works at the Metropolitan Museum, titled Revision and Resistance. I can’t tell you more than that because I haven’t even removed the plastic covering the book. But I want to see more of Monkman, hoping he is again interviewed, perhaps drawn into new projects.

I wish Miss Chief would consider writing an opera or musical. Perhaps there’s a film in their future.

I wish CBC would get them to host This Is My Music: because I’d like to get a better sense of their personality. What kind of music does Kent / Miss Chief listen to? I’m sure I’m not the only one asking.

Someday I hope we get to find out more about Kent Monkman. In the meantime I am very grateful to the Art Canada Institute, whose offerings I’ve just stumbled upon today, via their lecture.

They also offer a free downloadable book, Kent Monkman: Life & Work by Shirley Madill.

Art Canada Institute can be found here.

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