As UBC’s Museum of Anthropology gets used to welcoming visitors again, it’s opening a major new show—one that shakes up the very foundations of Canada.
On the final stop of a cross-country tour that kicked off in 2017, Cree artist Kent Monkman’s provocative Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience finally arrives in Vancouver.
Years in the making by one of Canada’s most exciting contemporary painters, it was originally conceived to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary through an Indigenous point of view. But it’s taking on unexpected new resonance during this year’s upheaval and the global focus on systemic racism.
“This was an opportunity to ask Canadians to think about what 150 years have meant to Indigenous people, and reframe it through my own lens,” the artist says, speaking to the Straight from his studio in Prince Edward County, on Ontario’s picturesque Bay of Quinte, where the largely Toronto-based Monkman has been holed up for most of the quarantine. “Colonial history really intended to remove Indigenous people from view, but also strip us of our culture and our languages.”
To prepare the exhibit, Monkman took a year to travel to museum vaults across the country, digging up artifacts and artworks that had been stowed away. Some of them—such as the moccasins of Chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker), and traditional cradle boards—make their way into the exhibit, creating a dialogue with Monkman’s grand, often parodic canvases.
His paintings are presented in the style of the old masters, but capture a history never told by 19th-century paintings: one of killing, starvation, and abduction. The Scream is a deeply distressing tableau of nuns, priests, and red-coated Mounties yanking crying children away to residential school, holding back their distraught mothers—in one case, by grabbing her hair. The Massacre of the Innocents, alluding to a 17th-century biblical scene by Peter Paul Rubens, finds white settlers slaughtering beavers with clubs, machetes, and shotgun buttstocks across a romantic landscape of rolling green foothills at sunset.
Monkman traces his fascination with Old World painting back a decade, when a trip to Madrid’s legendary Prado awakened him to the expressive emotional power of oils, brushes, and canvas—and how he could use the style to depict a history that had long been distorted.
“It really reinforced my belief that painting could be a relevant medium to express Indigenous experience—both historic and contemporary,” says Monkman, who continues to work across other media like film and installations. “And from that moment forward, I really set about engaging with this lost or discarded tradition from western art history and history painting. I think it’s such a sophisticated language of storytelling that I decided to harness the techniques of history paintings to speak about the Indigenous histories and experiences that had been erased from view or never depicted in this art history that is told in our museums across the continent.
“Over many years, I’ve been looking at that art history, examining it for those gaps in what has been represented and what has been omitted,” he continues. “So, with this project, what I wanted was to depict events, sometimes traumatic, that were erased from history, erased from the education curriculums of most Canadians, who had no idea that residential schools were this experience that Indigenous people had to survive. So many Canadians graduated from university without having any knowledge of residential schools, so it was an opportunity to insert some of these images into this shared art history, which ended up being quite powerful and troubling to many people. But I felt they were necessary to shock and also engage and educate many Canadians, who still remain largely ignorant of many Indigenous experiences. That’s the beauty and power of art.”
A character who makes frequent appearances in the Monkman paintings at MOA is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, his gender-bending alter ego. In The Daddies, she poses nude, in heels, lounging provocatively in front of the Fathers of Confederation, her bare butt planted on a symbolic Hudson’s Bay blanket. It’s Monkman’s own twist on Robert Harris’s classic 1884 painting Meeting of the Delegates of British North America to Settle the Terms of Confederation.
Miss Chief represents Indigenous culture’s fluid, two-spirit approach to gender, but she’s also a kind of trickster or supernatural force who brings humour to some of Monkman’s darker historical reference points. “She lives in this parallel universe as a Cree mythological figure,” Monkman offers, then adds: “I’ve often found that humour is a part of Cree storytelling. But also, just as a strategy, having humour is an important component of my work. It can bring them [viewers] even closer to other messages in my work that are harder to digest. And also, she’s a way of seducing people into my work. Miss Chief is kind of sexy.”
Though Monkman’s work has been prominently featured in institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Canada, his Shame and Prejudice finds a new kind of meaning at the Museum of Anthropology, with its rich collection of art from elsewhere in the Indigenous world.
The exhibit also offers a thought-provoking perspective on recent anti-racism protests, when statues are being toppled, institutions are being questioned, and history is being rewritten.
“I feel very optimistic. Unfortunately, it takes some kind of horrible experience to shock and enrage and force people out of this state of being idle,” Monkman reflects. “I’m one artist, one voice, and I believe it’s my inherent responsibility, if I’m going to talk about what it means to be Indigenous, that I have to sort of keep putting that out there as widely as possible There are many other people now whose voices are out there. We have to challenge the colonial narratives that have defined us. A lot of the conversations happening right now are doing exactly that: they’re challenging why we have statues that essentially glorify leaders of a genocide against Indigenous people. There has to be conversations about that. And there has to be action taken to move us forward. Otherwise, we are going to end up remaining in this position where we are continuing to be colonized.
“So it’s inevitable, but it’s also important that as many people as possible engage in this conversation and speak out to ensure that the future generations coming behind us are living in a better place.”
Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience is at the Museum of Anthropology from Thursday (August 6) to January 3, 2021.