Arts & Culture Features

Kent Monkman’s massive and bold historical paintings are something that every Canadian should see

The artist’s paintings depict themes of colonization, sexuality, loss and contemporary Indigenous experience.

In the middle of a genial space, surrounded by large canvases and paint brushes stacked on a trolley. A large painting captures our attention which is then diverted by a figure, who is too involved in the painting as he effortlessly adds the last few rough brushstrokes. This is Kent Monkman working on his latest work, “Beauty and the Beasts.”

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Kent Monkman in his Studio. Image: Aaron Wynia

Monkman’s recently made news when his massive (7.5 x 3.5 m) painting, “Miss Chief’s Wet Dream,” was acquired by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. His work has gained a lot of recognition for the way the paintings burst with colors and contain a complex mixture of history, commentary and artistic allusions. Kent Monkman isn’t like any other painter. His paintings are done in a Renaissance style that depicts Canadian and Indigenous history. Their tone is both open and irreverent as he portrays difficult and sensitive truths about the country, pondering sexuality, capitalism, loss and Indigenous art itself. His paintings often quote and re-create earlier artworks (in the case of “Miss Chief’s Wet Dream,” we can recognize the “The Raft of the Medusa”) as he adds historical events related to Indigenous people and the history of Canada.

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“Miss Chief’s Wet Dream” by Kent Monkman

“Miss Chief’s Wet Dream,” also known as “Two Ships,” features Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Share Eagle Testicle–a trickster whose name puns on “mischief” and “egotistical.” Monkman often uses historical pieces and images to tell the story of the Indigenous people’s colonization. This particular painting depicts an encounter between two vessels in a storm. A raft carries powerful figures from European cultural history like Queen Victoria, Marie Antoinette, a priest, and Jesus Christ being taken down from the cross. The raft is about to collide with a second vessel: a war canoe contains a variety of Indigenous people such as a young girl being clutched protectively by her mother, a young man leaning over and offering a peace pipe to one of the Europeans but being held back by one of his fellows, and a sleeping Miss Chief. This is a painting about a collision of cultures which highlights the barriers between both these cultures which also exist till today. It is also a retelling of a key part of Indigenous history from his own perspective.

There are times, during an exhibition, when Monkman, himself, dresses up as his alter ego Miss Chief who he created a number of years ago when he was going through the works of other artists of the 19th century and noticed that some of them have painted themselves into their work. So, he created an alter ego capable of changing the narrative of the people. Monkman describes Miss Chief as playing with “power dynamics within sexuality to challenge historical assumptions of sovereignty, art, commerce, and colonialism.” Miss Chief’s get up sometimes includes a pink beaded headdress band, flowing loincloth and stiletto heels.

“Miss Chief’s Wet Dream” is just one of many pieces in which Monkman tells the story of the colonization of the Indigenous peoples. In other works, Monkman has portrayed how Christianity has dominated Canada’s Indigenous peoples, how they were oppressed and how their children were taken away. Monkman has Cree and Irish ancestry, which is why he is able to explain the suffering faced by First Nations so well in this series of painting as he himself is a part of it. Most of Monkman’s pieces outlines Canadian history that was never told to us about how the Indigenous Peoples were tortured. Moreover, he uses the language of art, to help people understand the history of Canada and the truth that lies behind it.

“I wanted people to think about those original treaties and how they have not been honored,” he said. “How the Canadian government continues to move away from these agreements and to move away from their obligations and their promises.”

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Image: Collection of the Denver Art Museum, Native Arts acquisition fund.

There’s a growing appetite for Indigenous art, and especially for Monkman’s work. Monkman exhibition Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, is touring around the world and is a response to the government celebrations of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. In one of the interviews for the painting, Monkman says that “This was an opportunity to educate people, to create art that could move people, create awareness, inform. Being silent, or stepping out, was not really an option for me. I felt it was a very important moment to take some of the spotlights and to address the many issues and histories that have largely been kept quiet.” It takes the viewers on a journey to the past around Confederation times, giving us a view of the last 150 years of the country through the eyes of First Nations and what they went through. Monkman, himself says, that he knew little about his dark era as it was never taught in the classrooms.

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Behind each of his paintings is a multistage effort which requires a full crew including models and actors who Monkman asks to pose and give different expressions like anger and fear. As he captures those appearances and starts to paint, he makes further changes. The size of his paintings is often impressive. He says that he likes to paint in big frames as the subjects are harder to ignore.

His latest series of paintings, the Madhouse will convey the psychological impact and duress of colonization on Indigenous people and focus on the political changes in Canada where the Indigenous were suppressed from having any relation with their lands and traditions as their every move was controlled. Indigenous people represent 5% of Canada’s population, however, most of the kids in foster care are Indigenous and often endure terrible conditions. This series, he says, will honor their bravery.

Monkman’s paintings skillfully executed the truth of the exploitation of First Nations peoples, highlighting sensitive matters and giving viewers a chance to see the history of this land from a much wider point of view.

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