Kent Monkman

Words by Craig Cal / Artwork by Kent Monkman

What is the capacity of art to help unlearn the social constructs that we were taught in school, watched on TV, or grew up with? Ideas about sexuality, race, masculinity and the media, among others were engrained in many of us and it’s taken years to unpack and peel them away. By no means have those things been fully dealt with, but great art should help spark the honest conversations – with others and with ourselves – that are required to make real change. Kent Monkman, a Canadian of Cree ancestry and one of the country’s leading contemporary artists, has been creating art that specifically challenges the “history” of indigenous people in Canada. He questions the popular lessons in our history books regarding the founding of Canada, but more importantly asks “who gets to write that history?”

In 2017, Canada celebrated its sesquicentennial birthday, branded “Canada 150”. This was a country-wide, yearlong celebration manifested in a number of different events and sponsored in part by various levels of government. The celebration of the last 150 years is problematic for many of its citizens, but particularly for the indigenous peoples of Canada.

Kent Monkman utilized this time of celebration to author another view of history through his touring exhibition, “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience”. Craig Cal visited his west Toronto studio to speak with Kent about his art practice, motivations and the impacts of the exhibition thus far.

Do you think it’s an artist’s responsibility to say something meaningful with their work?

I wouldn’t want to make art that doesn’t have something to say. When I first started out as a painter, I was making paintings without really thinking much more about the formal aspects of painting; I was making abstract paintings, or paintings that just looked interesting on the surface. But, eventually, that wasn’t enough. I think lots of artists just want to make pretty paintings, and that’s fine, something to hang on a wall. But I don’t want to make work that is inert or in someway innocuous, or doesn’t have something to say. I believe that art has the capacity to send a message, whether it’s a film, a story, a book, a work of fiction or whatever. I don’t see why an artist wouldn’t want to provoke and to also challenge.

In other interviews you talked about the support that you received from your family to explore art at a young age – what were you like as a kid? Constantly drawing and painting while the other kids were playing outside?

Yeah I had pretty supportive parents in the sense that they just encouraged me to be creative. My mom was a teacher, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so instead of toys she would give me paper, pencils and paint. Drawing and painting was a way of amusing myself as a child. I was fortunate in that I was encouraged, not discouraged to be an artist. I know a lot of people don’t have an encouragement from their parents in that direction, so I was lucky that I did. It was pretty easy for me to develop an artistic identity as a kid and that just kind of stuck with me.

There is this idea that all children are born artists, but we educate them out of their creativity. Your family was supportive of you

exploring art, what was your elementary and high school education like?

I think the same thing happened in school. Teachers usually encourage a student that shows talent in one direction, or another, whether it’s music, math, or science. All the way through school, the encouragement I received was because I had such a passion for art. I was identified as an artist and I was always showing a level of talent or skill at it, so I was pushed forward and encouraged in that direction.

Fast forward to present day. It has been about one year since your Canada 150 show, “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” opened – how would you assess its impact thus far?

I’ve been really kind of blown away with how widely it has impacted the country. Everywhere I go people talk about it, or have seen it or want to see it. I know that some of the images from the exhibition through social media were shared widely. I got a sense of how that exhibition might impact the country when we posted one painting, “The Scream”, on Facebook about a week before the show opened and it really was my first viral post. I think we got about 300,000 views in a week, so that was really phenomenal. Normally I get a couple hundred likes and a few shares, rarely has anything gone to that high a number, so that was an indicator of how people would be receiving the exhibition.

When I did the exhibition I knew it was a rather large, ambitious exhibition, but I invested it with the same hard work and passion that I do for any of my exhibitions. As an artist you hope your exhibition and vision will connect or resonate with people, but it’s impossible to predict.

Do you think that people learned more about residential schools and have been pushed to look at the TRC report as a result of the exhibition?

(Note: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada [TRC] issued a report to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools [IRS]. The Commission documented the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience.)

I hope so. I mean that’s been one of my goals with Shame and Prejudice, to improve awareness and to educate people through art, to open people’s hearts and minds about the indigenous experience. People respond to art differently than they respond to reading a story or a news item.

Art has the capacity to move people emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. One of my goals for this project was to create paintings that moved people on an emotional level, as well as intellectually. The entire exhibition takes people through a story, through history, but also takes people on a journey to understand the emotional impact of what indigenous people have experienced.

Have you dealt with any criticism of the themes that you tackle?

I’m sure some Canadians don’t like it because it shakes the established perceptions that Canadian society is benevolent, kind and generous.

Canada likes to project its image to the world, and sees itself as a safe haven for immigrants, but this is hypocritical when they mistreated the First Nations so badly. I really wanted to focus on the experience of indigenous people over the last 150 years, so that really brought a very clear focus to what I was creating with this project.

Have you ever dealt with any specifically racist criticism of your work?

Not directly. Aside from the overt racism in this country towards Indigenous peoples, there’s a racism that exists in the art – it lies beneath the surface.

It comes out in more indirect ways and I’ve certainly experienced that in my career. How would I describe it? It’s a layer in Canadian society that can be condescending and dismissive. As an artist I’ve encountered many gatekeepers who control what gets exhibited, what gets shown and what gets supported. It comes from narrow mindedness about the kind of art an indigenous artist should be making work and what their work should look like. It is a subtly cloaked form of racism that lurks behind privileged views that are often uninformed.

Can you talk about the concept of time travelling in your work?

I created Miss Chief (Note: Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is Kent’s alter-ego drag persona who appears frequently in his paintings and performance art) as a time traveling alter ego because I wanted to make history seem real and relevant. When I situate Miss Chief in a historical context, historical experiences resonate in a different way. It was also a way to engage directly with art history. One of the devices I used was a reversal of gaze – having indigenous lens frame a view of European settlers.

In order to deeply challenge art history, I wanted to locate Miss Chief in historical settings and in the present and mover her back-and- forth. I think it’s been an effective way to talk about colonization, but also to talk about sexuality and many different themes that I explore in my work.

You just mentioned Miss Chief – can you explain what being two-spirited is?

From my understanding it’s really about embracing, as an indigenous person your sexuality that is rooted in your own cultural traditions. Two-spirit sexuality, whether you’re bi,

or queer, lesbian or trans, there is a place for you in indigenous cultures and historically there was. When the Europeans came, they didn’t really understand this non- binary, gender fluid sexuality. So for me, it’s about identifying my sexuality within a tradition of a culture that accepts it and did not have issues with it, which is very different from the European male-female binary.

Talking about gender and thinking about missing and murdered indigenous women and the #MeToo movement – sexual harassment, sexual violence and the treatment of women have been a reoccurring theme in some of your work. Do you think your work has caused men to look at their actions towards women in a different way?

Well I would hope so. I try to find a way with a language of art history, using these elements of modern painting to talk about violence against what I call the female spirit. I would use Picasso as this symbol of European patriarchy and misogynism and square him off with Miss Chief to create that tension between male and female. The conversation I really wanted to have was about that tension of male and female and how present it has been in the colonizing of indigenous cultures.

Can you talk about the relationship between the scale of some of your paintings and the level of detail in them? Some of the paintings are absolutely massive, so you have to literally take a step back to look at them, but then you have to take the time to look up close at each piece to catch all of the details. You’re always finding these little nuggets that you maybe didn’t see the first two times you saw it.

For me, great art is always multi- layered and multi-dimensional and it should invite and encourage multiple viewings. In fact, I’ve seen certain paintings that I can sit for hours in front of, and never really even fully see everything. For me that’s what makes a great painting. I make paintings for myself first and foremost because I want to satisfy my own instincts and my own desire to make paintings that really feel thoroughly rich and layered. If I can look at one of my paintings over and over and over again, I know that other people can as well. History paintings have a certain impact because of their large scale, and that was another reason for me to work large. Large paintings have large impact – just like watching a movie on the big versus watching the same movie on an iPhone.

The impact of scale has a certain authority and history paintings typically were made very large because that was the intention – to make grand statements that possessed a certain authority. I’m addressing the fact that so many indigenous narratives were obliterated from history. In making large-scale history paintings I’m authorizing indigenous narratives into art history and also giving them the same weight or importance that any historical narrative would have. Big paintings are just wonderful things to look at. There is a magic that happens in painting that is different than photography or cinema, and the fact that it’s all filtered through these two human lenses (my eyes) and then through a hand – even if you’re using a photograph as a reference – it’s still a very human act to make a painting. I have a deeply rooted passion for the medium itself.

One of the details that I picked up on at the show, particularly in the Urban Res series was the shoes – Air Jordans, Timberlands, Balenciagas, Nikes, Jeremy Scott x Adidas. Miss Chief is often wearing red-soled Christian Louboutins – what was the significance of including those contemporary pieces?

There are a number different reasons, it all depends what the painting is and what I am trying to say. Fashion is often an indicator of where our culture is in terms of its evolution, but also where people are in terms of their socio- economic status in the world. Three hundred dollar Nike running shoes means something in urban cultures. Louboutin’s are luxury shoes that cost a lot of money, so it’s also play on economics. A number of those paintings were directly about indigenous gangs, so I was also looking at what these gang members were wearing.

Another detail that is prevalent throughout your work is the Hudson’s Bay Blanket. Why has it been such a consistent piece in your work? I imagine its inclusion has something to do with the company’s history in the fur trade.

(Note: The Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] is North America’s oldest company. Approximately 200 years before the founding of Canada, trappers began to barter with HBC, exchanging furs for manufactured goods such as knives, kettles and blankets. HBC currently operates department stores in Canada and parts of Europe.)

The Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company had real authority, power, and dominion over peoples that lived in the north. The blanket is part and parcel of the colonial experience and it’s such a recognizable brand. It makes that

history seem very real when we still have these commodity items that were traded for furs, or food or weapons. There are layers of history and meaning embedded in the blanket itself.

Speaking about the fur trade, and the presence of different animals and the natural environment in much of your work – can you explain what the beaver rosary is?

When I did the research for the Shame and Prejudice project, I knew that I wanted to speak directly to the fur trade, and the beaver of course was central to the fur trade. The beaver pelt was essentially the currency of North America.

When we went and looked at objects we came across silver jewellery that incorporated a beaver motif onto a crucifix and a rosary. Christianity was such an important influence in terms of how indigenous people were colonized, that the beaver rosary became a natural blending of those objects with the themes that I was exploring in the exhibition: Christianity, the fur trade and residential schools. It all just kind of morphed into one piece.

I had a black history professor in high school who told our class that “history is always told from the perspective of the winner”. 

Obviously, your work challenges that notion. When did you become aware of that we weren’t being told the full story, specifically about Indigenous history in Canada? 

I’ve always been aware of that because growing up in an indigenous family and indigenous community, we did not see our stories reflected in mainstream media or mainstream curriculums. It’s not in the history books in the way that indigenous people experienced it, so this disparity has been there my entire life. I became more active in terms of challenging it when I started to work with the body of art history

and the canon of art history as it relates to North America. The European settler cultures that came here and chronicled their experience here in North America and the canon of art history they created is subjective, representing only the European settler point of view.

I wanted to work directly with museum cultures; because of the way museums perpetuated that very narrow perspective in how art is displayed and indigenous perspectives are presented. I’ve worked hard to unpack and challenge museum culture in this country. I’ve had a number of different opportunities to work with museum

collections and the Shame and Prejudice project was another museum-based project.

It was a great opportunity to go into museums and look at many objects and artifacts and reflect on how they are displayed, and how that dominant narrative has reinforced narrow ideas about indigenous people and the history of this country.

“Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” is currently touring across Canada. Visit www.kentmonkman.com for upcoming dates and locations.

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