“In the old Cree, there were no gendered words because it just didn’t matter”
Although he has worked in a variety of mediums, Cree Canadian artist Kent Monkman is now best known for his large-scale figurative canvases. They use the greatest traditions of Western history painting to challenge the colonial biases of art history and institutional collections. His interventions in public art museums often explore themes of colonization, sexuality, loss and resilience.
In 2019, in his most significant show to date, Monkman exhibited a pair of monumental canvases in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Great Hall that responded to some of the New York institution’s masterpieces while provocatively reimagining traditional white settler narratives through the eyes of the indigenous population. Here, as in so many of Monkman’s works, Miss Chief Eagle Testicle was introduced, his flamboyant, tempestuous, gender-fluctuating alter ego, appearing not as a downtrodden victim of settler subjugation, but as a glamorous supernatural being. She is also a prominent character in To be legendaryMonkman’s new show of more than 30 paintings, as well as objects and texts, opens at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) this month (October 8-March 19, 2023).
Art Gazette: You have worked primarily in response to museums with art collections. But for To be legendary you have handled objects from the ROM’s geological, paleontological and anthropological collections. What was your starting point?
Kent Monkman: It started with a conversation I had in 2017 with the ROM’s director, Josh Baseches, who told me that the museum had no material—objects or art—that spoke to the legacy of boarding schools [controversial boarding schools for Indigenous children]. In Canada, boarding schools had a devastating impact on Indigenous people. It was a policy designed to erase us, erase our languages, and remove children from their cultural heritage and their families. They put children in labor camps and thousands never come home.
The ROM is one of the most important museums in the country [but it] there is no way to overcome this lack of information that generations of Canadians have faced – because it is not taught in schools. This is Canada’s dark secret, and understanding Indigenous people, where we came from and where we are now is part of history.
In the ROM show, there are paintings and texts that make poignant references to the brutal policies the Canadian government has implemented for more than a century, but the story you’re tracing also goes back millennia.
One of the big attractions at the ROM is the dinosaur fossils. Tens of thousands of students and adults who visit each year are fascinated by these things and I love them too. This got me thinking, what did the local children learn about these ancient giant creatures? What do we know about these fossils that have been extracted from our earth? I wanted to talk about the disconnection of the knowledge that Indigenous children were taught by their ancestors that started during the colonial period. As the project developed, I realized that our stories—so often dismissed by settler cultures as cute, weird, or folkloric—contain science, they contain knowledge. We have stories that talk about one of the mass extinctions, we have stories and words in our Cree language that talk about the retreat of the glaciers. There is science to these stories, and indigenous science is a very vast field. We have star knowledge, we have botanical knowledge, we know about our earth. And this knowledge is embedded in our Cree language and culture. We have been here much longer than the settlers want to believe or want us to believe for ourselves.
You tell this story through the voice and persona of your alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. This time-traveling, shape-shifting creature has been present in your work for several years. Where does she come from?
Miss Chief was created to inhabit a more empowered understanding of Indigenous gender identity and sexuality. When the settlers came, they met people who lived in the opposite sex. We had a place for these individuals, whether they were identified as male at birth and lived in a female role or vice versa. In old Cree, there were no words to distinguish gender because it simply didn’t matter. A person’s gender or sexuality was irrelevant and there were no words for it. There was a more fluid understanding and acceptance of sexuality.
One of the first paintings I did of the Miss Chief character was her painting a portrait of a cowboy and it just grew from there. It was born out of that desire to turn the gaze and say, “Hey, as much as you’re looking at us, we’re looking at you.” It represents a very empowered understanding of Indigenous sexuality and gender. And she’s a badass.
To be legendary it may fail to address cultural cruelties, but the humor is always there.
Humor is an integral part of my work. It’s part of our cultural way of looking at the world, and also my way of transcending my own family history and my own identity. I’m Kree and our Creator is a trickster, so we have an inherent sense of humor in our way of looking at the world, which I think is also key to being able to deal with some of these dark episodes.
As the ROM project developed, I realized that the colonial period is really only a small point in this long timeline of our existence here. And it got smaller and smaller, but it was still a necessary thing to deal with in telling this knowledge disruption story. I also wanted people to understand that there is a long [period] before, and now we are entering our post-period and that we do not want to be defined by the colonial era. This period has been devastating for us, but we are so much more: we’ve been here and it’s such a rich existence.
Your giant figurative canvases channel the greatest traditions of history painting. Why did you choose to work this way?
When I first started painting, I was an abstract artist who inherited the painting traditions of the Abstract Expressionists. I’ve been on this mission to find my own unique way to make a mark, whether it’s a blob, splash, or streak. But the language I developed was so personal that I failed to convey the themes that were urgent to me—about my community, my own family, and the impact of colonization.
Then, after painting abstract paintings for many years, I just did this 180-degree turn and went back to making representational images and I disappeared my hand. For me, it was a moment of maturation as an artist.
It’s interesting that you choose to work on such a scale and with so many quotations from the old masters of European art history, whether Peter Paul Rubens or Eugene Delacroix, or traditional Americans in a grand style like Winslow Homer.
I’m a big fan of the power of historical painting because it has such an impact when you stand in front of a historical painting. There is an authority that comes through scale, compositions and gestures. I wanted to include our experience in this canon because it is such a powerful medium.
There is no faking here: it is about constructing paintings from scratch and understanding how they are made to explore what is possible in terms of human emotion and expression. It’s cool to watch when people engage with the work because they initially think they’re seeing one thing, but then it’s the other way around. I use a medium similar to the artists of Western art history, but convey a worldview that is radically different from the original from which I draw inspiration. I looked back and now I say, well, now we’re looking at you.