This is a time of reckoning; when the medicine bears exact retribution and the air is smudged with smoke of sweetgrass, sage, tobacco and cedar to purify the spirit. Kent Monkman’s extraordinary traveling exhibition, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, opened at the Art Museum to commemorate Canada’s 150 years of existence.
It transpires that Canada has omitted Indigenous people from its founding narrative. This exhibition seeks to institute the truth into these last 150 years through the devious endeavours of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s two-spirited incarnation; a trickster in high heels who traverses the centuries and appears at important junctures.
Indigenous people are not celebrating the Sesquicentennial and with good reason!! They have gone from being commercial and military allies of the French and British in New France and New England, complicit in decimating the beaver population for scent and pelt, to a poverty-stricken marginalized group beset by illness, violence and self-loathing. Their land has been taken while they languish in reservations, enduring starvation and incarceration. Their children have been removed and abused through the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop. Miss Chief chronicles their despair in nine chapters of pain, which are reflected in the exhibition rooms.
Colonialism is predicated on the three C’s, Commerce, Christianity and Civilization, in a misguided notion of racial superiority. The pernicious effect of this unholy alliance between church, state and business is reflected in the Canadian historical artefacts and paintings that lounge alongside Monkman’s own works. His paintings delve into Western culture through the eyes of painters like Petrus Christus, Caravaggio, Tiepolo and Fragonard to Modernists like Manet and Picasso. Jane Austen’s characters in Pride and Prejudice, inform Miss Chief’s social climbing exploits. He subverts the colonial art historical narrative by cunningly inserting Indigenous and Queer subplots. The Colonial fascination with Indigenous people is mirrored as Miss Chief gazes back at us.
Decolonization theory posits that everything cultural and institutional is tainted. Nothing short of the return of North America as Turtle Island will suffice, including acknowledgement of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation investigation. There is a desperate need for empathy and truth before Canada can embrace its full identity. Monkman is highly regarded by this art society as a cultural ambassador so he naturally forms a bridge to the Indigenous world. He is the messenger who can relay the message so we learn the truth and make recompense.
He has spent several years researching this project and includes a Jesuit priest’s pictures articulating the insinuation of Christianity into the “Wilderness Kingdom”. These images lean from the wall beside Monkman’s nativity installation. In a tiny shack based on a Renaissance era Nativity scene by Petrus Christus, a wrinkled, old-born baby looks up from a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket at bemused “parents”, all with Monkman’s visage. Pop cultural icons Campbell’s soup-cans and Coca-Cola bottles compete with the Cleveland Redskins logo on a sweater. A hoodie-clad kneeling figure prays with hands reminiscent of Albrecht Durer’s ubiquitous Christian symbol «Praying Hands». A rosary tipped with a crucified beaver dangles from the hands. Behind the scene in a vitrine, the praying hands have been commercialized into silicone objects resembling butt-plugs, thus setting the tone for the exhibition.
The next room displays The Death of the Virgin (after Caravaggio) alongside a nurse’s medical bag, referencing life expectancy of Indigenous folk due to dire living circumstances. Works from his Urban Rez series introduce symbolic imagery in narrative form. Bears ransack the suburbs while leafy soldiers point weapons from the foliage. A Bacon-esque naked female writhes beneath a flying angel. Helicopters and murderous convicts rage outside a deserted Winnipeg hotel. Miss Chief, substitute matador with a Hudson’s Bay cape, defeats the masculine bull of Picasso in Seeing Red, while cars burn near the Buffalo Dance. Angels watch, oblivious to the pouncing eagle while Skinwalker lurks in the swirl of murder, rape and mayhem.
One is moved to learn about Cree Chiefs Poundmaker and Big Bear, forced to sign a bad treaty to get supplies for their starving people due to extermination of the buffalo by settlers. They were incarcerated on flimsy pretexts in Stoney Mountain Penitentiary, where they both got sick and died on release. The Subjugation of the Truth places them in leg irons at the table to sign Treaty Six while Miss Chief looks on in the guise of Queen Victoria.
Amongst the most painful sequences are the abuse and removal of the children. The Scream is situated in a room adorned with empty child papooses. Priests and nuns assist the RCMP in seizing children while horrified parents try to resist.
Miss Chief sits naked before the surprised Fathers of Confederation in The Daddies, asking for her place at the table. Outside, a banquet table adorned with historical platters and silverware alludes to the bounty lost. Monkman has made The Starvation Plates with images from the destitution of Indigenous life. Skeletons of small mammals adorn that end of the table.
The Bears of Confederation stalk the Romantic Sublime landscape to rectify us. Religion is rooted out and salvation becomes acceptance of our natural state. With this exhibition Monkman has done exactly what he set out to achieve. It is a brilliant show that warrants all the accolades it will surely get.
Kent Monkman Shame and Prejudice: a Story of Resilience
Art Museum University of Toronto
January 26—March 4, 2017