Monday, February 13, 2017

Art: Kent Monkman - Shame and Prejudice Exhibit

Kent Monkman is a half Cree, half Irish painter, sculptor and performance artist from Winnipeg, known for creating powerful, provocative works that force the viewer to reflect upon the plight of the Indigenous people throughout Canada's history.  Monkman’s alter-ego Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, a gay drag icon, often appears in his visual arts and the occasional film, video or live performance.  The use of a homonym (“Share”) to pop star Cher is fully intentional.  Portrayed with long flowing black hair, full-faced makeup, often scantily clad while rockin’ a pair of fiery-red platform heels or hip-length "kinky boots" and a feathered headdress, Miss Chief channels Cher in both look and attitude.  Also carefully calculated in this name are puns on the words "mischief" and "egotistical" as well as not-so-veiled reference to "testicle", alluding to Miss Chief's (and the bisexual Monkman’s) duality of sexuality and spirit as well as her penchant for being a rabble-rouser, trickster, freedom-fighter and provocateur.  Kent Monkman’s paintings are on permanent display at major art galleries such as the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto and the National Gallery in Ottawa.  He has also taken part in many museum shows including the 2012 Fashionality: Dress and Identity exhibition at McMichael Art Gallery where we were first exposed to his work including a sculpture of Miss Chief dressed in pink, and a pair of his high-heeled “moccasins”.  We also attended the 2015 exhibition The Rise and Fall of Civilization at the Gardiner Ceramics Museum where Miss Chief made another appearance in a diorama depicting the near extinction of the American bison at the hands of the Europeans.

When Kent Monkman was asked to curate a new show in honour of Canada's sesquicentennial birthday, he decided to reflect upon the key events that occurred in Canada's history over the past 150 years from the perspective of the Indigenous people, as opposed to the Colonial perspective depicted by artists like Paul Kane.  The result is a massive show named Shame and Prejudice, on display at the University of Toronto Art Museum until March 4 before touring across Canada.  Monkman has produced a series of paintings and several large-scale sculptural installations, as well as borrowing relevant historic artifacts from museums across the country.  The show is divided up into 9 sections, moving in reverse chronological order from present day back to the arrival of the Europeans and creation of New France.  Dealing with historic themes including the fur trade, building the railway, signing of the treaties, Indian reserve systems, residential schools, Christianity, as well as generic themes of incarceration and violence towards women, each section of the exhibit is narrated in the voice of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.  We barely made it into the over-capacity artist/curator talk for this show, which resulted in the largest crowd that the Art Museum ever experienced.  Monkman is extremely well-spoken and gave great insights into the deeper meanings and messages behind his works.

Major sculptural installations bookend the beginning and end of the show.  The opening installation depicts Monkman's version of a "Nativity Scene" with Indigenous figures standing in for Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus who is lying on a Hudson's Bay blanket. The tight, squalid quarters, and processed foods including SPAM, Kraft dinner, canned soup and bottled water highlight the poor housing and living conditions of the Indigenous people, and how far removed they are from their initial state of living freely off the land.  The ironic wearing of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey jersey by one of the figures brings to mind the whole recent debate about whether these sports teams names and logos are racist.  Look closely and you will see that each figure, including the baby, has been given Monkman's own face.  This is in reaction to his experiences visiting other museums where he noticed that all Native Indian images were portrayed with the same face.

Accordingly, every sculptural figure within the exhibition, be it man, woman or child, is adorned with Monkman's face.  The final installation of the show, called "Scent of a Beaver", depicts the power struggle between the British and the French in their attempts to woo the Native people and dominate the fur trade.  Taking inspiration from Jean-HonorĂ© Fragonard's 1767 painting The Swing, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle sits on a swing while Generals Wolfe and Montcalm vie for her attention.  Wearing moccasins and a fur-lined dress, Miss Chief swings back and forth between the two.  Each of the trio again sports Monkman's face. 

The works in the next few rooms depict Main Street, Winnipeg where many Indigenous people have gathered after being dispossessed of their lands.  The paintings "Le Petit Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe" and "Struggle for Balance" incorporate Picassoesque forms of female nudes into the urban scenes.  Monkman draws parallels between the influence of Modern art styles like Cubism that flatten and distort images, with the way Indigenous people have been squeezed out of their lands and stripped of their language and culture.  The twisted, deformed female nudes also allude to misogyny (which Monkman accuses Picasso of) and violence against women, highlighting the issue of the numerous missing and murdered Indigenous women.  There are also renderings of winged angels that look ambiguous in nature.  Are they spiritual and good or menacing and ominous?  One of the angels even sports a tattoo on his forearm.  This same ambivalence reflects the impact of Christianity upon the native people.

The piece "Death of a Virgin, After Caravaggio", reimagines the Italian Baroque painter's 1606 masterpiece, replacing the figures of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdeline and the Apostles with Indigenous tribe members.  Monkman's version comments on the new illnesses and diseases that the North American Indians were exposed to after coming in contact with the Europeans.  The natives had no resistance to smallpox, measles, influenza and many died.  I find it interesting that Caravaggio dressed his Virgin and Mary Magdeline in red while Monkman chose to clothe his corresponding figures in blue, as both these colours are highly symbolic in Christian iconography, representing humanity vs the divine. Next to the painting is a display containing a Nurses bag, scalpels and medicines that once again exude an ambiguous tone... Should these "strange Western treatments" be seen as foreign and threatening, or helpful salvation for the sick?

As much as the "Death of a Virgin, After Caravaggio" painting references physical illness, it also relates to what Monkman terms as "sickness of the soul".  Centuries of suffering loss of lands, possessions, identity, language, culture, and finally hope, pride and spirit have led to broken homes, high rates of suicide, addictions, mental illness, violence and incarceration in prisons.  Monkman calls the Indian Reserve Systems the first form of incarceration, corralling the Indigenous people and restricting their freedom.  It is no wonder under these circumstances that Aboriginal inmates account for a disproportionate percentage of growth within the Prairies Correctional facilities.  Monkman's works "Cash for Souls" and "Seeing Red" allude to these statistics, with imagery of fighting, burning, helicopters flying, inmates in orange jumpsuits attacking women, and again the semi-ominous angels.  The positions of the central figures in "Cash for Souls" mimic various renderings of "The Rape of the Sabine Women", in particular the marble sculpture by Giambologna in Florence.  "Seeing Red" features a semi-nude, stiletto-wearing Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, acting as matador with a Hudson's Bay blanket as a cape, confronting a Picasso-like bull, the ultimate symbol of male dominance, in a classic fight against homophobia.

One of the most poignant pieces in the show deals with the travesty of the Residential School System policy, which ripped Indigenous children away from their homes and families in order to instill in them "proper Western education and culture".  Titling the painting after Edvuard Munch's "The Scream", Monkman gives a whole new horrific meaning to the designation.  His work depicts a screaming mother being held back as her child (and others) are being dragged away by priests, nuns and Mounties. The trauma caused by this callous and misguided practice has resonated through the generations.
An accompanying installation consists of two walls of beautifully decorated cradleboards, which are  traditional Native American Indian baby carriers where the infant is swaddled and strapped to a flat board.  But nothing in this exhibition is shown for aesthetics alone without an underlying message. After admiring the craftsmanship of the artifacts, you notice that some of the boards are stark and barren while others are missing all together, represented only by a chalk outline. These are in reference to the missing children who were taken away.

In another room is a long table that seems to be displaying historic examples of European Rococo dinnerware and the lavish meals served in that era.  But as you walk along the table, the food becomes more meager and scarce until the final plates are empty except for a few bison bones.  At one end is the opulent lifestyle of the Europeans while the other end represents the Indigenous people who were starved into submission.  A "Sharps Model 1874" Military Rifle sitting in a glass case against a totally blank wall is an example of the guns used by European soldiers to deliberately thin out the buffalo herd, which was a main source of food, clothing and shelter for the Natives.  The blank wall is symbolic of the near extinction of the American bison.

Kent Monkman often uses cheeky humour (pun intended) to soften the tone but not the message when highlighting some very painful topics in Canadian history. His painting "Subjugation of Truth" alludes to Cree Chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear being forced to sign treaties giving up their lands in order to save their tribes from starving.  The iron chains attached to their legs and the firm hand of the Mountie grasping Poundmaker's shoulder leave little doubt that this was a coerced signing.  To lighten this serious subject matter, Monkman adds a portrait on the wall of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in the guise of Queen Victoria.  When describing the impact of the railway on the Indigenous people, his work "Iron Horse", he depicts the railway as a Trojan Horse, outwardly seeming to bare gifts and bounty for the Indigenous people, but instead leading to their downfall.  In "The Daddies", Monkman painstakingly recreates Robert Harris' 1883 painting "Fathers of Confederation" depicting the Charlottetown Conference of September 1864 which set Confederation in motion, but then adds a nude Miss Chief to the mix.  The painting raises the question of why First Nations representatives were not at this meeting.

In the early days of New France and the fur trade, beaver pelts were considered trade currency and beavers were slaughtered in huge numbers.  Naming his piece "Massacre of the Innocents", Monkman compares the slaughter of the beavers to Ruben's masterpiece of the same name, depicting the Biblical account of King Herod's infanticide.  Monkman even recreates the iconic segment of Ruben's painting where a guard has lifted a baby overhead and is in midst of slamming him to the ground.  The most irreverent work in the exhibition is titled "Bears of Confederation".  It depicts
a group of white men in various stages of undress, some wearing only kinky bondage harnesses, being raped and ravaged by bears and whipped by Miss Chief.   Bears are considered to be spiritual by the Indigenous people but feared by the White Man.  Could these men be some of the Fathers of Confederation from "The Daddies" and "Subjugation of Truth" paintings, finally getting their comeuppance?

Hearing Kent Monkman talk about the meanings behind his various pieces of art allowed us to appreciate the poignancy of the messages that he was trying to convey.  It is too bad the Shame and Prejudice exhibition will not be on display for longer, and that there is not more curatory notes for those who were not lucky enough to attend the curator talk.

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