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Monkman, Kent

Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: Artist.

(1965-    ) Canadian artist and provocateur of Cree and Anglo-Irish ancestry, working in multiple media, using shock tactics and the absurd to confront onlookers with the nature of Imperialism and its long shadow on the modern world. Many of his paintings carnivalize prominent works in the Euro-American canon, such as "Miss Chief's Wet Dream" (2018), which depicts America's colonizers as a Ship of Fools ill-suited to their new homeland, and imposing a prolonged and unwelcome form of Cultural Engineering on the natives. "The Academy" (2008) is a study in absurdity, presenting an art class within a First-Nations hut, in which a Cree Indian, his canvas left blank, stares in bafflement (or boredom, or amusement) at a tableau inspired by classical sculpture.

Monkman reconfigures Western classicism in the context of indigenous peoples' oppression in the modern world, such as "La Pieta" (2018) and "Washing Mary's Tears" (2018), which re-cast the Virgin Mary as a First-Nation protestor under attack from riot police, or "Le petit-déjeuner sur-l'herbe" (2015), which reimagines Manet's "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe" (1862) in the street outside an all-day drinking establishment, as angels watch cubist drunks sprawled on the sidewalk. "Les Castors du Roi" ["The King's Beavers"] (2011) features Europeans and First-Nations peoples slaughtering beavers, which, in a moment of Uplift, are seen pleading for their lives and praying for a divine intercession that never comes. With deliberate provocation, it has been hung in the Montreal Musée des Beaux-arts at the entrance to a gallery of seventeenth-century artwork that celebrates Canada's early days of trapping and hunting, and the taming of nature.

Monkman frequently inserts himself, or rather his alter-ego Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, into his paintings, turning his magnum opus, in his own words, into the story of "a time-traveling, shape-shifting, supernatural being who reverses the colonial gaze to challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples." (see Time Travel; Shapeshifters). In this context, Miss Chief takes on the role of an androgynous trickster, wandering through a garish Alternate History of the last 400 years, with a Perception that switches the roles of victor and vanquished, places indigenous peoples in the roles of Christ and Christian martyrs, lampoons the Western canon, and depicts colonizers as a group with thinning power and presence. [For Thinning and Trickster see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below.] In his "Duel After the Masquerade" (2007), the role of the wounded Pierrot from Jean-Léon Gérome's "Sortie d'un Bal Masque" (1857) is taken by a leather-clad European trapper, supported by masked First-Nations shamans, The victorious duellist, sashaying out of frame, is Miss Chief himself in a fur coat, leaving his easel and paints on the ground behind him.

A thread of sexualized violence runs through much of Monkman's work, with moments from colonial history reimagined as sexual assaults, allegorizing the colonization of Canada as a literal rape of its people, or subversively "outing" iconic figures as closet homosexuals (see Gender). Monkman's most controversial work in this mode was "Hanky Panky" (2020), which depicted a lodge packed with laughing First-Nation womenfolk, as Miss Chief prepares to sexually assault the semi-nude prime minister, Justin Trudeau, while former Canadian political leaders look dourly on. Monkman intended the painting as a reclamation of the agency of the Okihcitâwiskwêwak, a female law council that traditionally dispensed justice, in contrast to the patriarchal, colonial legal system that repeatedly fails indigenous women. However, he later apologized, announcing that he regretted using the name of the council in the painting, and absolving his models of any responsibility for the final appearance of the work.

"History is Painted by the Victors" (2013) displays Miss Chief with his easel, painting a scene of natural beauty while the last vestiges of Western colonialism fade into the background (or perhaps go native), the artistic embodiment of the figurative New Zealander. [JonC]

see also: Absurdist SF; Illustration.

Kent Monkman

born St Mary's, Ontario, Canada: 1965



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