Paintings of European colonization in the North America landscape were presented in a romanticized fashion by 19th century artist such as Paul Kane, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and John Mix Stanley.  By skillfully adopting this painterly technique, Toronto-based artist Kent Monkman challenges these historical painters and their contextual interpretations. In an explicit narrative utilizing idealistic western landscapes as a backdrop to homoerotic interventions, Monkman creates a radically alternative view of the Canadian Aboriginal peoples.

With a Swampy Cree and English/Irish ancestry, Kent Monkman is a First Nation Canadian and a member of the Fisher River Band in northern Manitoba.  Though film, illustration and visual art, Monkman is inspired by his ancestry to explores the impact of colonialism on the Canadian Aboriginal people; a history that largely bore a decimation of aboriginal culture, an exposure to Judeo-Christian values, and modified views on sexuality due to the influence of the church.

Colonial paintings during the 19th century, according to Monkman, were often biblical in nature and had a consistent message of Christianity; not only the landscapes that were painted, but the Aboriginal’s that were represented within them.  The Anglican Missionary in the 19th century translated the Bible and Christian hymns into the Cree language, “and so just the very existence of this form of writing credited to this Anglican missionary, this impact of the church on aboriginal people, that this written form of the language was developed. So from that body of work with that sort of theme in mind, I started to think.  I had these human figures grappling sort of beneath the layers of syllabics and they were quite sensual, sort of erotic figures of bodies wrestling, so I was playing with the idea of how through this intersection of culture through Christianity, you know, meeting aboriginal cultures, it’s often…a space that can be one of conflict and one of consent, and I think it’s very easily, sometimes too easily polarized or set up, that you know Christianity has had profoundly negative influence on aboriginal people, and so it was about opening this dialogue and saying well there’s been many different ways that Christianity has impacted aboriginal people and through that investigation with that Cree text and the Christian hymns that I was translating onto the paintings, this idea of the impact on sexuality came through. At the tail end of that series I started to imagine what these figures might look like set in a landscape and it really came as a sort of, I guess a purely logical extension of that work.”

(Kent Monkman – Artist and Model, 2003 – acrylic on canvas. Collection of artist.)

(Kent Monkman – Triumph of Mischief, 2007. – acrylic on canvas. Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of the artist.)

Sexuality became a dominant concept in Monkman’s work; where sexuality is a hierarchical exploration of power between the Aboriginal people and European colonization.  In “The Moral Landscape” series, the interpretations of the Aboriginal as “caretakers’ of the land” by historical painters are re-interpreted by Monkman to show this sexual manifestation.

Recognizing the misrepresentation of sexuality in Aboriginal cultures through many of the 19th century paintings, Monkman explores the idea of berdaches to play on the inaccuracies.  The berdaches, or Two-Spirit People, are those who simultaneously embody both the masculine and feminine spirit; capturing a third gender that performs the traditionally associated roles and dons the garments of both men and women.

The European painters who were set to paint the cultural landscape selectively chose to ignore the berdache.  “Many of these artists were commissioned by wealthy patrons. So in effect they were sort of fulfilling a commission. So there was this influence of their patrons, wanting these artists to create images that fulfilled their own imagination or their own ideas about what the west was about, what Native people were about.”

Through Monkman’s investigation, he discovered that there was a general acceptance within Aboriginal cultures in accepting homosexuality and two-spirited persons prior to the colonization and the subsequent onset of Christian principles.  Within certain tribes, these individuals were revered for their ability to bridge the gap between genders; often adopting the roles of healers or medicine people:  “…everything that I’ve learned through my investigation and studies of this subject… alternative forms of sexuality were present…They were definitely here and accepted before contact.”

(Kent Monkman – Dance To The Berdashe, Video installation, 2008. Bruce Bailey Fine Arts, © Christopher Chapman.)

(Kent Monkman – Louis Vuitton Quiver, 2007. Collection of the Artist.)

(Kent Monkman – still from Shooting Geronimo
Written and directed by Kent Monkman
Cinematographer and Executive Producer: Gisèle Gordon)

To bring the two-spririted into the art they were previously ignored from, Monkman developed an alter-ego drag persona: Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, who is a reoccurring character in his paintings, videos and performances.  Originally inspired by the performer Cher, “this whole (Eagle Testickle) persona is to take that Hollywood Indian stereotype and present it as a really empowered persona who has in my paintings a lot of sexual power.”  Often found wearing seven-inch platform heels, or a raccoon jock strap, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is Monkman’s opportunity to play off the “egotistical” and exaggerated perspectives of the 19th century painters.  Miss Chief becomes a glorified representation of the relations between the European and Aboriginal cultures.  In “Si je t’aime prends garde à toi” Monkman demonstrates this egotistical perspective where a European sculptor’s kiss brings to life his marble sculpture of an Aboriginal creation to life.

Though Monkman presents conceptualized views the two cultures that he possess, he defines himself first and foremost as a painter.  “So before I set out to create work that is concept driven or anything like that, it’s really about painting. But I think my work is primarily informed by an attempt to define that space between the two cultures. I think that’s probably the strongest way of…or the simplest way of defining how my work’s informed.”

(Kent Monkman – Si je t’aime prends garde à toi, 2007. Collection of George and Arlene Hartman. Photo Isaac Applebaum.)

Monkman has shown in solo exhibitions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the Art Gallery of Hamilton; site specific performances at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, The Royal Ontario Museum, and at Compton Verney. His award-winning short film and video works have been screened at various national and international festivals, including the 2007 and 2008 Berlinale, and the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.  His work is represented in numerous public and private collections including the National Gallery of Canada, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Museum London, The Glenbow Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, The Mackenzie Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Cover image: (Kent Monkman – The Trapper’s Bride, 2006. – acrylic on canvas. Private collection.)