In this moment of institutional and personal reckoning about the legacy of settler-colonialism and violence against Indigenous people, Kent Monkman’s work invites provocative intersections with the canon of Western European and American art history while exploring themes such as sexuality, colonization, loss, and resilience. Monkman is an interdisciplinary visual artist and member of the Fisher River Cree Nation in Treaty Five territory, Manitoba. He lives and works in Dish with One Spoon Territory, also known as Toronto. mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, a touring solo exhibit is on view at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (August 6, 2020–January 3, 2021). In a conversation held over Zoom we discussed canons, painting, and his gender fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a time traveling, shapeshifting supernatural being who challenges received notions of history and Indigenous people by reversing the colonial gaze.
Amber Jamilla Musser (Rail): I'd like to start our conversation with the Mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) paintings, which are on display at the Met. What is this genre of history painting and what does it mean to have these kinds of works on display in the Metropolitan Museum? What kinds of pedagogies and critiques are taking place?
Kent Monkman: Well, these paintings really represent a couple of decades of research into the art history of North America, largely told by settler artists who had their eyes on the land, but also on the First people of this territory. Over the past two decades I've been working with many institutions across North America looking at museum collections and responding to work from the 19th century, primarily that challenged the gaze of the settler people on First people. It occurred to me pretty early on once I opened that can of worms that Indigenous people were being disappeared from view. The story of this continent, as told by those artists, and upheld by our museums, really was about erasure. So, when I started to respond to the certain artists and their work, I also realized that I had to follow through and challenge the colonial institutions that were perpetuating many of the ideas brought forward by the settler mindset of that time—maintaining that the Western eye on Indigenous people was the authoritative way of looking at us as Indigenous people. It's such vast and rich terrain, I've spent so many years working my way through this canon, and still see no end in sight in terms of the possible intersections and ways that I can speak to the various issues and problems. The Met represents the most important institution, I would say, in America, and it is full of artworks from all over the world. The collection has been an inspiration to me for many years. Years ago, I discovered a discarded tradition of history painting that was so incredibly sophisticated and rich that I felt that it was worthy of harnessing and using this sophisticated language of painting to speak to the erased histories of Indigenous people, from our own lands and from the art history of this continent. Right now, in Canada, we live on 0.2 percent of our original land base, dispossessed of our lands, dispossessed of the possibility of having a thriving economic way to sustain ourselves. History painting for me is really such an important medium partly because of the scale, but also because of the way I'm able to speak to many themes and intersectionalities with this work. The Met project represents to me the pinnacle of many years of work in being able to achieve this commission during this period of time, because when the Met came to me, my studio was already scaled up for another project. My studio team, I've got 16 assistants with me, and we've worked over the past few years really refining our process so that we can take on large scale projects, and the Met came along at the perfect time in terms of where I was with my practice and the team that I had assembled. I'm very proud of this achievement. I'm very proud that I was given that opportunity and welcomed into the museum to speak candidly to their collection and to museum practices, which are on the edge of significant change. I think with these commissions the Met showed leadership in moving the conversation forward, further forward than some of the other institutions that are still lagging behind.
Rail: Welcoming the Newcomers (2019) feels as though it's kind of a reimagining of an initial moment of encounter. Whereas Resurgence of the People (2019) feels more like a future oriented project, although it could be now, especially with the rising seas. But I'm interested in this insistence on a kind of futurity. And, also in speaking about the process of making the paintings, how you see entanglement. It's really interesting to me that you have these images of different forms of solidarity. So, I'm just wondering if you could speak about that and whether there's something about the genre of the history painting that allows both of this kind of time traveling and this sort of focus on relationships to really shine through?
Monkman: Well, those are great questions. And, you know, one of the things I thought about when I was thinking about this painting and representing the future, in a way—I'm also really looking back and ruminating on the past, and have things changed? Are we moving forward? Are we improving the lives of, for the next generation? And I just keep going back to our treaties. My First Nation, Fisher River, was part of Treaty Five, which was signed in the late 1870s. And the treaties, from my perspective, were about going into kinship, and for many, from the original perspective, which I share, is that we were going into kinship with the settlers. As Indigenous people we are already in kinship with all living beings. It was a way of speaking to our responsibility, but also of the settlers to be in kinship with each other. And, of course, the colonial project has been a project of white supremacy and of genocide, and my community, all Indigenous communities are still experiencing the effects of present-day colonialism.
And so, when I think about the future, I think about the continued attempts to displace us from our land. You see protests and blockades and Indigenous people taking a stand to protect water and land from the multinational corporations that are still pillaging our lands and taking liberties to, without permission, extract resources from our territories. When I was thinking about Resurgence of the People, I was thinking about rising sea waters displacing other people, but in many ways, Indigenous people, we've become migrants and refugees on our own land. The Met project was an opportunity to talk about how many people have immigrated from other places to North America through the portal of New York City, and how this flood, this flood of settlers and people from all over the world have effectively displaced us from our own territory. I was really inspired by those heartbreaking images of people in migrant vessels who are being displaced from their own lands and it was a way to speak about this desperation of us being squeezed onto smaller tracts of land. And then the little pieces of land that you see poking out of the water there are being defended by white militants. So, it really speaks to the present. But, I think, there's a message of hope in this painting too, because, for me, I was thinking a lot about our Cree laws, and laws that put us in kinship with all living beings and as caretakers we are in kinship, wâhkôhtowin. I was also thinking about Miss Chief as a legendary being, someone who represents those laws which teach us how to live with all living beings, including the settlers who came here.
Rail: We're going to go back to this idea of entanglement. Right now, however, I want us to turn to Miss Chief as the fabulous leader—maybe I shouldn't call her “leader.” I'm not totally sure how you see her in relation to the figures, but she appears throughout your work, so I'm sure you have a lot to say about her.
Monkman: Miss Chief first emerged in my work as a way to reverse the gaze. You know, I was looking specifically at the work of artists like George Catlin, and in Canada, Paul Kane, and they were settler artists who were looking at us. George Catlin made a painting that I wanted to respond to and I have responded to several times called Dance to the Berdashe (1835–37). It is a painting depicting an honor dance for a person of a Sac and Fox Tribe who lived in the opposite gender, who were gender fluid. This was something that existed in Indigenous communities on Turtle Island, all throughout the continent, and was something that the settler population did not understand. And so the fluid sexuality and gender fluidity was something that was very much a part of Indigenous worldviews. And again, this comes back to the fact that we are in kinship with everyone.
And so with Miss Chief, I wanted to create—because our sexuality has been colonized by the church and by the state—I wanted to create a very empowered persona that could represent our Indigenous thinking about sexuality and gender, and present a very positive figure who could kind of use this power relationship of the observer and the observed, and make her own body of work with the settler male as her prime subject. As the character evolved over the years, I had to sort of figure out who this character is, and where does she come from? In the last couple years, I've been working on her memoir, which will be published hopefully in the coming year. I’ve been writing that with my longtime collaborator, Gisèle Gordon, and in that memoir, we filled in some of the blanks. So this idea of her being legendary really comes from the creation of this character as being in this parallel universe with the other legendary beings in Cree cosmology, like the trickster character Wîsahkêcâhk, mîmîkwîsiwak, who are the little people, the Thunderbirds, and so on and so forth. Miss Chief really exists as this legendary being, who was always here or who was created when the earth was created and put on this earth. It's been really amazing to develop the character that way and fill in some of these missing areas that were never developed earlier on in my artworks. But you know, in terms of her look, and some of the aspects of her persona, they were influenced, obviously, by drag culture, and by ballroom culture. Miss Chief is always pursuing these luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, and Louboutin shoes. And that really stems from this, this feeling of being part of an underclass, being treated like a second-class citizen on her own land and aspiring to something more elevated. So you'll often see her wearing those Louboutin shoes or carrying a Louis Vuitton bag.
Rail: I think often we don't see femininity recuperated in these kinds of ways. Miss Chief is such an interesting combination of strength and vulnerability. Moving onto the scale of the paintings, what do you think about the experience of seeing a painting this large? One of the things I love is that you have to look up at them. I think it also invites a different sense of intimacy with history.
Monkman: One of my strategies is to seduce, because Miss Chief is about love. When I first started making these paintings that reference the art history of the continent, they were based on landscape paintings. People would approach them and think that they were seeing something familiar and when they got closer they realized what was going on was something subversive. So, the strategies are to seduce and to pull people in. And then for them to spend time because I also like to make paintings that I want to look at for a long time—I like to see people spend time with them. This comes back to my appreciation of the genre of history painting to kind of turn it into a Cree genre, because I'm a Cree person. And much in the same way that an Indigenous author, you know, writes a novel or writes a symphony, or even makes a feature film, you know, we make the medium our own. And this was very much about making this medium my own and to accept the challenge of how difficult it is to do this and to be on a path of learning myself, and to be on a path of discovery through these different projects. And I think that's something that motivates me constantly, is that my art practice is this vehicle through which I am in a constant state of learning.
Rail: Everything about those paintings speaks to sort of these spirals of learning. And it's clear that the investment is in disrupting the Western canon, narratives that we have around moments of encounter, indigeneity, and, I would also argue, femininity. But I think one thing that's fascinating about your work is that it shows these disruptions at different scales. So, now we're going to talk about Miss Chief's Praying Hands, that I think offers a lot of the same critiques and interventions, but through really different means. What I love about the film is the way that it really makes clear the way issues of gender and sexuality and sort of affective disciplining are connected to these larger violences.
Monkman: The piece kind of speaks to a number of themes, you know, the intersectionality of my own sexuality, my own identity as an Indigenous person, the impact of Christianity in my own family through residential schools. My grandmother was a residential school survivor, as were her brother and sister. And the impact of that, the impact that that had on our family is felt daily still. We, as Indigenous people, were forbidden to speak our languages in residential schools. We had Christianity forced on us. But, you know, Miss Chief is also about play and wanting to have a very healthy idea of sexuality and put that forward in a very liberated way without the shame that comes from the impact of Christianity. So, I took Dürer's Praying Hands (ca. 1508)—they were a self-portrait of his own hands—and then turned the praying hands into a cast of Miss Chief's hands and made it into a silicone butt plug. And so that was a way to speak to those different themes and to connect them to Miss Chief as that sort of iconic character, disrupt that heavy weight of the colonial influence of the church, on our communities.
Rail: As someone who spends a lot of time writing about masochism and racialized sexual dynamics, that film gives me a nice, pleasurable chuckle because of the different things that it's subverting. And I do want to flag that I think there is something that feels pleasurable about the idea of an assertive racialized sexuality. It gets complicated, but the idea is that we're imagining that Miss Chief will top whoever, you know, somebody with this, and that, in some ways, that will be kind of a retribution for these things, even though you know, bottoming is not necessarily bad, right. There is some sort of sexualized dynamic that is part of the play of Miss Chief.
Monkman: Definitely, and in the memoir, we certainly explored how Miss Chief would actually educate some of the settler men that she encountered about sex because they were repressed and did not have a relationship with their anus. So, Miss Chief teaches them and liberates them. There is that element of really trying to bring forward a decolonized thinking about sexuality, and, you know, Cree humor and Cree stories are very sexual, they're very bawdy. I mean, some of the dirtiest stories are told by Indigenous grandmothers. And that's just, that's who we are, that's in our culture, and the shame isn't there, the shame comes from outside. In putting forward this sort of unapologetic, strong idea about sexuality, it is to refute the shame and I keep coming back to that. And my current exhibition that's just winding up a nine-venue tour in Canada is called Shame and Prejudice, a Story of Resilience, and it is very much about refuting shame on many levels and also calling out the shame of the colonial project.
Rail: And I love the way the butt plug and everything is so shiny; that suggests such a wealth of pleasure and possibility, which is exactly opposite the sort of dynamics of shame. And so now we can switch to Hanky Panky (2020). I wanted to pair these together because I think it's important to talk about the world in which the Miss Chief's Praying Hands circulates. This painting, I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about the controversy, and then maybe we can kind of collectively unpack a little bit of what's going on.
Monkman: Yeah, well, Hanky Panky was kind of the perfect storm of a few different things that all converged. One, of course, was a provocative image. Two, was the way the image was disseminated, or I should say, dropped out into the world through social media. I wasn't really thinking about the context when we released it on social media—it made a lot of people really angry. Part of it might have been the pandemic. Part of it was the apology that I issued for the harm that was caused directly to the models. I wanted to mitigate any further damage to them because they were being called out as accomplices and I regret that I didn't foresee the kind of the danger of a representational image that people will look at and read on a literal level. They identified these individuals as being complicit in, what they interpreted to be, an act of sexual assault. When people were seeing that painting without context, I understood that they were visibly upset, but there were also a lot of people encountering my work for the first time, they had no concept of my body of work or of the Praying Hands themselves, that this is part of a long trajectory of work that I've made. It would just appear on someone's phone. And then, I had some detractors, people within my own community, and they poured gasoline on that, and all of a sudden you have people piling on. So it was this kind of amalgamation of these different things all happening at once. In the mainstream news, I never apologized for the painting, but the news media picked up that I apologized for the painting. So the apology itself fed the mainstream headlines, which were also sensational.
I have to admit, it was kind of phenomenal to see what was happening and to just take some time to try and take an approach that would first of all, mitigate any further damage to the individuals who collaborated with me on the painting and to absolutely take full responsibility for the image. Because, you know, I have thick skin, I've been an artist my entire life and I made the painting and I stand behind the painting, but you can't control how people interpret the work. And it didn't matter what my intentions were, or even what my thoughts were, in making the painting, it just kind of exploded. And so I did my best to not get in the way of the mudslinging and the rotten tomatoes that were being thrown at me by responding in the moment because anything I would have said at that time would have just inflamed. So I decided to just stand back and just watch it eventually lose some momentum. But I'm looking forward to talking more in depth about this painting when I exhibit it next year, at a museum here in Canada, and to show it in context with my other work, to be able to speak to the many issues that this painting speaks to.
I hit a nerve, and that nerve is trauma, the nerve is trauma in our communities. And this painting was—well I don't want to explain the painting, but what I will say is that, in flipping this victim and victimizer, I guess you could say, it was to reveal the callous indifference to Indigenous lives. I never intended to say that Indigenous people or Indigenous women would take pleasure in seeing somebody sexually assaulted. I mean, these were the things that people were saying. And they were saying other things, too, that I wanted to respond to. At the time, they said it was a ceremonial lodge and it wasn't. Actually it was based on a 19th century painting of a dwelling. There were so many things that were going out that were just getting people incensed. But it was really to speak about the callous indifference of a colonial government to Indigenous lives, specifically the missing and murdered Indigenous women. And in flipping that, it wasn't to say Indigenous women would enjoy seeing this at all. That was not my intention, it was just to reveal the callous indifference, indifference that has been shown to Indigenous lives.
Rail: Since we sort of already talked about anality and the butt plug, I'm not going to necessarily go into them here. But I am interested if you could say more about the way that you portray the women, not necessarily just as laughing, but they appear so many different ways. I feel like it's striking to have such a lively presence, especially in terms of sort of shying away from a victimhood mentality. I also wonder how much of this the outrage had to do with the recognizability of Trudeau—how that focalizes attention in a particular way that's different than how white supremacy is visually connected to institutions. But then also, more generally, I think, the difficulty of visualizing consent. And here, I mean, it's hard at this scale, I'm sure at a larger scale, it's much easier to see, but consent has been visualized by the red hanky. It struck me that it's such a difficult thing to try to make visible because it is a negotiation and a process and yet a painting can just be one snapshot.
Monkman: Well, this painting, in many ways, is this kind of collision of the intersectionality of my own identity, my own experience, and everything from queer sexuality to the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people. Like I said, the callous disregard for Indigenous lives, and then, you know, the absurdity of this image where things are kind of flipped around. Indigenous women, traditionally, were our leaders, and to have colonial governments come in and disrespect them by not even talking to them was partly what was behind this painting. I wanted the women to be empowered, I wanted the women to be the most powerful people in this painting. Trudeau is our head of state—he represents the legacy of colonialism, there's no other way around it. I couldn't make this painting without him in it.
Rail: The reason I was interested in Trudeau was that I was thinking about this series of yours where white supremacy is signaled by blandness. Everybody's in uniform, they’re such institutional spaces. And it just struck me how different that is, as a representation versus a person. And especially since you're interested in dealing with the legacies of these structures, rather than necessarily—Trudeau is sort of there, because he's the end point of the structure of colonial government, but not necessarily because of him as an individual, specific person. I was just curious if you had things that you wanted to share about your strategies for representing these structures of oppression?
Monkman: “The Madhouse” is based on a few things, but one is that Goya did some paintings of a madhouse. I wanted to try and articulate with this series the psychological impact of being institutionalized as an Indigenous person. There are several colonial institutions that are still at play: the child and welfare system, the prison system. We have completely disproportionate Indigenous populations filling our prisons, up to 90 percent of our prisons are Indigenous. We have a national crisis that isn't being talked about, that this legacy of institutionalization often begins in childhood, where children are taken from their families, put into foster care, and then they're traumatized or abused, and they fall into another institution, the prison system, and so on, and so on. And so with these paintings I was trying to capture and communicate the different levels of mental health, and traumas that exist in our communities as a result of these violences perpetrated on us. Whether it's PTSD or the other traumas that come from the sexual violence in our community, or that have been perpetrated on Indigenous women. It was to try and speak to those things and articulate the rage. Some Indigenous prisoners come into contact for the first time with their own traditional spirituality in prisons through visiting elder programs. So, there's this strange irony that the prisons are also places of spiritual transcendence. “The Madhouse” was really to try and find a way, with this language of painting, that I love, to speak about some of these things.
Rail: I was watching another interview with you and I think you mentioned that one of the reasons you like painting is its ability to produce emotion and show that in a particular way, and I think that that comes across very clearly here. I think in combination with Miss Chief's wonderful clothing—how fashion and clothing are also ways to express a lot of these inner states as well.
Monkman: Definitely, and you know, it's like by putting all the color on the Indigenous people, I was also just speaking to the way that representations of Indigenous people made by settler artists were so reductive; identities were reduced and diminished into some very broad stereotypes, without any individuality. So, I kind of reverse that in a way and try and give all the cops the same look, same washed out face. Again, it was kind of about reversing the gaze a little bit to give people some ideas about the fact that they have also been observed by Indigenous people. From the beginning of our entanglement together, we have been observing each other. And it is a long, complicated relationship with all kinds of nuanced aspects, and these very aggressive and violent aspects as well.
When I created that series I wanted to depict as wide of a range of human emotion and experiences as I could to speak about grief, to speak about rage, to speak about trauma. When I created this series, we worked with models and we had people improvising different scenarios, and some of these poses are based on old master paintings. When the models came into the studio, I had basically mood boards of paintings that I liked. And this is what I love about old master paintings, their mastery of painting human emotion. I've been observing and learning and studying, how does a body drape in grief? How does a face fall in just the right way? Or how can a hand express of emotion? This was all part of my path of, you know, understanding and learning from painting. And bringing forward this richness, this vocabulary of painting that can express this incredible depth and range of human emotion.
Rail: That's great. I was going to ask you one last question, but I feel like that might be a nice place to stop because I was just going to ask you to reflect on the difference between portraying Miss Chief or working in painting versus drawing versus the object creation.
Monkman: Sure. Well, you know what, everything in my studio, all the practices, all the external stuff that I do, it all serves painting. Even performance in a way because the performative works are somehow in conversation with painting, the butt plug is in conversation with painting. It all kind of serves painting and it's really rewarding to come at this great medium from different perspectives. There are things that you can do in one medium that you can't achieve in painting. I like to explore. Again, being an artist, like I said, it's about learning and exploring, and you learn from all of these different trajectories that you explore in.