Kent Monkman on decolonizing art and history

Artist delivers lecture on his new exhibit at the Agnes

Kent Monkman lectures.

Artist Kent Monkman delivered a talk on his exhibit “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” this weekend to a packed auditorium in Ellis hall.

Before the lecture, Monkman spoke with The Journal about challenging ideas of Canadian history and advocating Indigenous perspective.

Now featured in the Agnes, the exhibit started as a research project with a request by Barbara Fischer from the University of Toronto Art Centre.

“I thought this exhibition was originally going to be more about the railroad and its driving force in spreading Canada,” Monkman said. “I often in my practice go into museum collections and I find material … and create work in response to what I find.”

Monkman decided to tell this story through nine chapters and hopes to reframe the narrative outside of a “European settler lens,” he said. 

The resulting exhibit explores the narrative put forth for the Canada 150 celebrations last year and will tour across the country over the next three years. Monkman’s work asks viewers what history means for Indigenous peoples and the legacy of their story in Canadian history.

The pieces exhibit driving themes like the influence of Christianity and the incarceration of Indigenous peoples both in the residential school system and prisons.

This appears particularly clear in his piece, ‘Death of the Virgin (After Caravaggio).’

“In it there’s references to sickness and healing, missing and murdered women, teen suicide and gang tattoos,” Monkman said of his depiction of a group of people surrounding an apparently deceased young woman laying in a hospital bed.

The subjects stand mourning the girl’s loss and wear intensely pained expressions. One young man, covered in gang tattoos, grieves at the foot of the bed with an stretched hand. Another man holds his chest as he looks down at the girl in the bed and reaches for the bed frame for support.

This scene, like the rest of the exhibit, is told from the memory of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a cross dressing two-spirited alter ego of Monkman who appears in much of his work.

Monkman said he’s also working on a faux-memoir of Miss Chief which will be released sometime soon.

“I wanted these [pieces] to feel like chapters from her memoir. She’s telling the story, she belongs to a community, she belongs to a family.”

Monkman has developed this theme of community and family in his attempts to connect the pain of the past with the pain currently felt in Indigenous communities across Canada.

“150 years is just a blip when you think of how long Indigenous people have been living here,” he said. As a result, the emotion of historical events is connected to the suffering of people like the young man and the teen in ‘Death of the Virgin (After Caravaggio).’

In his lecture on Saturday, Monkman said he used realism and the techniques often seen in early Canadian art and history so he could rewrite his role in both.

“I am interested in speaking to everybody … the best art is multi-layered,” he said.

Monkman emphasized these techniques allow anyone with a child to respond to a painting like ‘The Scream’ which depicts Mounties, nuns and priests tearing Indigenous children from their homes and families.

However, the artist has faced backlash thanks to his role in reevaluating Canadian history and was even the target of some attacks when he received a grant to work in the US some years ago.

Monkman joked he was being targeted because he was an Indigenous gay man from Canada receiving money from the US Government to make art.

People don’t usually react to Monkman’s work in a casual manner but that seems to be his intention. He attempts to imbue the same gut reaction that Indigenous peoples were forced to endure when their children were taken away to residential schools. 

It’s work that’s made to be challenging, representing the familiar in jarring and unusual ways. If nothing else, it’s the approach that ensures Monkman will continue to be one of the most relevant names in contemporary Canadian art. 


contemporary art, Kent Monkman, The Agnes

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