February 19, 2014

Kent Monkman: Troubling the Discourses of Land, Gender and Indigeneity

 Kent Monkman (pictured above) is a Canadian First Nations visual artist of Cree and Irish descent. Born in St. Mary’s, Ontario in 1965, he grew up in Winnipeg, and now lives and works in Toronto. Monkman has experimented with both installation and film. His 2007 short, Shooting Geronimo took home an award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Monkman is best known however, for his politically charged paintings and his unique fusion of queer awareness and aboriginal history. His works provide alternative narratives concerning the representation of indigeneity in art and challenges the ethnocentric, chauvinist and revisionist leanings of 19th and 20th Century artists such as George Catlin and Paul Kane, as well as artists of the Algonquin school, otherwise known as the Group of Seven. It is his charge that the work of these and other painters, famous for their representations of North American wilderness as fertile, uninhabited and almost virginal in nature, bolster the notion of the West’s right to dominion over it. When aboriginal tribes people are represented in this way, they are constructed as the misunderstood savage, either reviled or fetishized. Another common motif in Monkman’s art is the contentious relationship between sexuality, colonialism and Christianity. A controversy once again ignored and overlooked by white settler artists hoping to capture the essence of Canada’s land and journey to statehood.  There is a cycle of appropriation evident throughout Monkman’s artistic endeavors. The Western ownership of Cree and other indigenous identities is addressed in his re-appropriation of longstanding stereotypes, presented in a satirical manner. Monkman also successfully utilizes the oil on canvas medium appropriated subversively and likely purposefully, from a long-standing European tradition. This again, acts as a commentary critiquing the derisive ways in which indigenous representation is often wielded as a marginalizing tool, while exemplifying an active move toward a progressive hybridity within the visual art discipline; a re-drawing and reclaiming of the multiplicity of identities erased by colonization and assimilation.Monkman populates his paintings with figures that at first glance play out stereotypical and expected encounters between Indigenous peoples and early European settlers. Upon closer inspection, these scenes tell a very different tale. Indian chiefs are often dressed in drag versions of what the western gaze considers traditional dress; stiletto heals accompany a feathered headpiece and glaringly pink animal hide loincloth, as is the case in Monkman’s 2003 acrylic on canvas painting titled, Artist and Model. All this is portrayed on a backdrop of picturesque North American landscapes in the very Anglo-European style Monkman seeks to subvert. Often depicted interacting with various characters in his paintings is Monkman’s own drag queen alter ego, “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle”. Monkman has on occasion dressed and appeared as Miss Chief in various photographs, live shows and artistic films. Her amalgamative performance of alternative masculinity, indigenous identity, and queerness represents the breaking of a sexual repression introduced and perpetuated by settlers through colonization and missionary moral paternalism toward aboriginal culture. Miss Chief’s appearance provides a visual reminder that such variance may indeed have existed in for instance, Catlin’s “Berdache” character, if severely diluted through a Christian moral strainer. Miss Chief’s name may also act as a comical jab at the construction of the hyper-masculine Indian warrior chief championed in popular media, and lends a spotlight to the vast modes of aboriginal expression still scandalized by western society.

In crafting his subjects, Monkman gender bends, inverts gender roles and plays with the multiplicities of identity and expression. He creates scenes of violence and bloodshed that are laced with overt sexual imagery, drawing a relevant parallel to Michel Foucault’s framing of sexuality as an exchange of power. Yet, somehow amid the struggle and tragedy of the histories that inform Monkman’s interpretations, lively elements of play, glamour and empowerment persist.

Related Resources

Elston, Melissa M. “Subverting Visual Discourses of Gender and Geography: Kent Monkman’s Revised Iconography of the American West.” 2012. The Journal of American Culture 35, no. 2: 181-190. Web. 11 Feb. 2013

Gonick, Noam. “Two Spirit in Aboriginal Culture.” Canadian Dimension 2009: 22,27,4. CBCA Complete. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.

Hill, Richard W. “The Unreadable Present: Nadia Myre and Kent Monkman.” C Magazine 2002: 32-35. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.

Liss, David. “Kent Monkman Miss Chief’s Return.” Canadian Art 2005: 78-82. CBCA Complete. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

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