Kent Monkman’s project ‘Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience,’ is all at once ambitious and spectacular, an irreverent portrayal of Canada’s history beginning 150 years before confederation. Bringing together Monkman’s large paintings, installations, sculptures, and dioramas shown with paintings, material culture, decorative arts and objects mined from museums and collections across Canada - the scale of the exhibition is triumphant. The exhibition was curated by Kent Monkman and narrated by his alter ego, Miss Chief Testickle written in collaboration with writer, Gisele Gordon.
The title Shame and Prejudice, riffs off Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice to frame the exhibition with Miss Chief’s ‘trickster’ relations with the colonizers, motivated and “negotiated with the well-being of her family and community in mind,” sharing the same drives of Austen’s protagonists (pg. 8 catalogue). Though Pride is replaced with Shame to explain the last 150 years of the Indigenous experience in Canada. The story of Canada through the Indigenous experience is written and categorized in 9 affecting chapters, all together unfold layered and complex narratives covering a wide range of themes. Monkman unpacks modernity and primitivism citing art historical references, early politics that shaped Canada as we know it now, and dis-ease from fall-outs of colonialism.
In Chapter 1:
New France, Reign of the Beaver relays the period 150 years before Confederation, when Indigenous Peoples were a powerful part of the economy in the fur trade, exercised their life-ways in hunting and ceremony and were indispensable for settler survival in what is now known as Canada. Kent Monkman’s “Roccoco installation, Scent of a Beaver (2016) is based from Fragonard’s painting The Swing (1767), positions Miss Chief’s balancing the power struggle between French and English for domination of the fur trade” (page 8 catalogue). Miss Chief’s, Montcalm’s and Wolfe’s faces don Kent Monkman’s features varying in skin tone, eye colour and hair – to reference the everyman or the static representations of Indigenous peoples in museum dioramas. The installation is appropriately campy and lavishly decorated, no shortage of visual references to the pleasures, leisure and sensualities of the rococo style. The beaver has a central role to play in this chapter as emblematic of the fur trade, and over-hunting of their kind to serve opulent lifestyles.
Fathers of Confederation offers a cheeky reimagining of Miss Chief's presence at the gathering of the confederation, with a large painting “The Daddies,” Monkman asserts an Indigenous seat at the table, the focal point is on Miss Chief’s naked back draped loosely with a HBC blanket as she faces and endures their eternal paternal gaze. This painting also shifts the gaze so not only is Miss Chief looking back at the European men, the viewers gaze also joins and stares back at our history in judgment. Here Monkman’s work authorizes the Indigenous experiences, and history in not only art history but also the chronicles of Canada.
Wards of the State/ The Indian Problem, references Duncan Campbell Scott’s infamous quote, “I want to get rid of the Indian Problem’ generated homicidal intolerance to resistances by Indigenous leaders; Pound Makers and Big Bear. Their refusal of the racist policies, signing of the treaties, and the reserve system they knew would be the demise of their people incited racist hegemony.
Starvation shows us a literal display of a long dinner table installation that powerfully parallels on one side of the table the opulence to the other end starving desperate conditions. The lavish end of the of table showed the bountiful period of New France, the celebrations of the Canadian Pacific railway and its silverware, and excess flutes of champagne. The dinner table gradually declines from shiny waxed wood to a barn wood table with blue and white (Delftware-esque) porcelain plates illustrating the decimation of the buffalo through hunt, on the top scraps of bone referring to the resulting starvation of the Indigenous tribes relying on them for hunting and survival.
Forcible Transfer of Children was perhaps the most visceral part of the exhibition for me… a large painting taking up the size of one wall showed Mounted Police officers tearing children away from their parents grasp, borrowing a gesture from Edvard Munch’s The Scream, the parents and children’s mouths are agape screaming in anguish. Painted into history, Monkman captures the nightmare that was the residential schools and the sixties/seventies scoop, in which children were literally torn from their parents away from their families, land and language with the threat of prosecution as government policies. On either side of the painting are beautiful adorned cradleboards from museum collections that hang on the walls to illustrate the love and care Indigenous people had for their families and babies. The most heartbreaking was where the missing cradleboards, the gesture of absence was felt with weighted spirit.
Incarceration, dealt with the disturbing statistics of the high incarceration rates of Indigenous people in Canada, primarily in provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Since 150 years of confederation, Indigenous people have either been incarcerated within the reserves system, the pass system, kept in industrial schools, disenfranchised, on-going systems of children-in out-of-home-care and weighted down with poverty, self hatred and addictions – correctional institutes are another form of the colonial system of control and oppression.
The Res House is presented as the Nativity scene, showing the impacts of Christianity on Indigenous communities. Monkman’s research into a Jesuit Priest, Nicolas Point’s journal and paintings led to his creation of The Res House installation. Brilliantly comprised together are a 3-point triangle composition of figures, a mother, a father and a baby. They again all share the same features of Kent Monkman with blank dark eyes (yes, even the baby who is appropriately clothed with an newer baby HBC blanket) to refer to the stagnant representations of Indigenous People in museum settings. The Res House calls attention to the substandard housing conditions on reserves, the reliance on high-priced unhealthy commodity based foods, two-liters, baby formula and Nestle ‘Pure Life’ bottled water due to unsafe water conditions. This scene is rife with loaded images, and symbols of colonial damage. Behind this installation is a washable silicon sculpture of Albrecht Dürer’s Prayer Hands or also known as Study of the Hands of an Apostle, hands that appear through out the exhibition in gesture and on tattoos in Monkman’s characters.
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- Kent Monkman - official website
Sickness and Healing summons the early epidemics brought in with European arrival such as influenza, measles, and smallpox killing many Indigenous people. Chief Eagle Testicle relays the current diseases plaguing Indigenous communities; tuberculosis, diabetes, HIV, AIDS, FAS, teen suicides and the mental, physical, spiritual disease affecting all generations brought on by all of the above chapters of Canadian history and the lasting racist superiorities that leave women missing and murdered. It’s beyond despair but the silver lining is the suggestion of healing, in one the paintings set in a hospital, a smudge bowl and feather represent use of traditional medicines, releasing its cleansing and calming smolder.
Urban Rez presents large scaled paintings of urban scenes of ‘skid-row’ and is admittedly close to home for me… literally a few blocks away from where I live in Winnipeg so these paintings are very familiarly ‘Winnipeg’ but could also be Regina, Saskatoon or Edmonton with similar grit. These paintings are rich with narrative and provide direct context to urban gang violence, lateral domestic violence and poverty, addictions and pawnshops. Present are the evocative broken and distorted figures of women reminiscent from Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” a well known painting evoking hangover of the modernist influences of superiority, misogyny and subjection of women and other cultures. Tattoos are a common thread in this series, especially reoccurring are Dürer’s praying hands, could this evoke prison tattoos or a sustained symbol for hope and healing, or perhaps both? This exhibition offers a few paintings from a larger series of Urban Rez works that illustrate a current state of affairs and Indigenous survival. As curator and artist, Kent Monkman’s project ‘Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience,’ has managed to activate museum collections by situating objects in a contemporary exhibition acting both to either contrast and complement his own work in conversation. Along with Miss Chief Eagle Testicle, bears, bison, and beavers are central players and forces to tell and represent their version of Canada though humour and truth. Surrounded by Canada 150 celebrations, this exhibition provides a necessary critical perspective of the last 150 years in scale, importance and veracity. Monkman has created a new museum, one that addresses the missing narratives Canada has been deprived of learning in our colonial education systems - instead audiences connect and re-engage in art history, and counter narratives from the Indigenous experience. The exhibition was affecting and I am reminded of the power and ability of art, specifically painting to summon deep feeling but I am left with a question, is Indigenous resilience represented in this exhibition by sheer survival and presence or could there have more to symbolize and represent the resilient element?
Jaimie Isaac is a Winnipeg-based interdisciplinary curator and artist, member of Sagkeeng in Treaty 1 territory. Isaac holds a degree in Art History and a Masters of Arts from the University of British Columbia. Some recent exhibitions include Vernon Ah Kee: cantchant, Boarder X, We Are On Treaty Land, and Quiyuktchigaewin; Making Good for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, she co-founded of The Ephemerals Collective which was long-listed for the 2017 Sobey Art Award, collaborated on official denial (trade value in progress), contributed essays in The Land We Are Now: Writers and Artists Unsettle the Politics of Reconciliation book and the Public 54: Indigenous Art: New Media and the Digital magazine and was co-faculty for the Wood Land School at Plug In Institute.