Multiple Meanings in Kent Monkman’s “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience”

On current display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, located on Queen’s University’s campus, is Kent Monkman’s most recent project, titled Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. Kent Monkman is a Canadian artist of Cree ancestry who works with a variety of mediums, including painting, film/video, performance, and installation. Last week I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the exhibit and learn more about the theme and direction of its works. I joined a Queen’s film class who was also participating on the tour, led by Sunny Kerr the Curator of Contemporary Art. This was the second time I had visited Monkman’s collection. The first time I saw the collection I went by myself; I was moved by the paintings as I had never seen anything like them before. However, I could not shake the feeling that I was misinterpreting the paintings, or missing an important part of their theme. This time, as I was led through the exhibit, Sunny was able to explain some of the multiple meanings embedded in the pieces and as well as elaborate on Monkman’s “borrowing” technique.

 

This exhibit is a response to the 2017 celebration of Canada’s 150 years since Confederation. Monkman’s pieces seek to inject a different story which takes viewers back 150 years before Confederation and counters the widespread belief that Canada is a country without a history of colonial injustices. Celebrated in museums across Canada are works which uphold the myth that the European discovery of Canada was a fair and patron-like adoption of the Indigenous peoples. In contrast, Monkman’s pieces show the “dispossession and removal of the First Peoples from their lands”[1], as well as more contemporary injustices, such as the legacy of incarceration, the Sixties Scoop, and current urban disfranchisement.

 

Narrating viewers’ journey is Monkman’s alter-ego character, time-traveling, two-spirited Miss Chief Eagle Testicle. Miss Chief serves a multitude of purposes: her narration confronts the stories we have been taught in school, her feminine power challenges the European masculine aggression, and as the embodiment of the trickster figure, she introduces a carefully balanced element of playfulness into paintings with heavy subject matter. The exhibit is separated into 9 unique chapters, starting with the period of New France and concluding with the contemporary urban reserve. Miss Chief marks the beginning of each chapter with her own memoir. The personal memoirs allow Miss Chief to assert her voice and her own story, challenging the European histories. She also affirms her authority through her own body language, as she reclaims space through dominant poses and challenges the European masculine figure –represented by the founding fathers, as well symbolic figures, such as the bull. There is only one-chapter Miss Chief is absent from –both in narration and her presence in the painting –and that is chapter 4, titled the “Forcible Transfer of Children”. She simply says the “pain is too deep to talk about”[2]. Her absence in this segment of the exhibit initiates a change in tone, from playfulness to mourning. However, most importantly, her continued narration and presence in the paintings also represents a theme of hope and the resilience of Indigenous people.

 

This element of multiple meanings which surround Miss Chief, resonate in other ways throughout the collection. For instance, Monkman borrows ideas from historical European art pieces and combines them with his own ideas. The effect of this combination, as Monkman explains in his foreword to the collection, is “the activation of a dialogue about the impact of the last hundred and fifty years of European settler cultures on Indigenous Peoples, and about the Indigenous resilience in the face of genocide”[3] . Monkman reuses European styles of painting and makes them relevant again by utilizing these methods to portray contemporary Indigenous issues. This combination of European art movements with Indigenous Peoples’ histories creates a sense of ambivalence throughout the exhibit as paintings cannot be pinned down, and instead display a multitude of powerful meanings. For example, Monkman’s Seeing Red borrows from the European art tradition of cubism. He explains in his foreword that the cubist style of flattening spaces, “echoes the shrinking of space for Indigenous people who were forced onto reserves”[4]. Here, Monkman reuses the cubist style to inject a different story of Indigenous peoples’ experience; a story which previously has been left out of many art exhibits.

 

Despite the heavy subject matter portrayed in many of the paintings, Monkman explains that the main theme of the exhibit is one of resilience. He explains the greatest “form of resilience lies in the creativity of Indigenous artists across the continent who are overcoming the intergenerational impact of genocide and transforming their troubled experiences into many forms of transcendent art and expression”[5]. Kent Monkman’s exhibit is on display at the Agnes Art Centre only until April 8th, 2018 before moving onto other galleries across Canada. I encourage you all to visit this powerful and unique collection while it is on tour. I promise it will leave an impression!

[1] Monkman, Kent. Foreword: Shame and the Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. January, 2017. Pg 4.

[2] Monkman, Kent. The Scream. 2017, acrylic on canvas. Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston.

[3] Monkman, Kent. Foreword: Shame and the Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. January, 2017. Pg 5.

[4] Monkman, Kent. Foreword: Shame and the Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. January, 2017. Pg 7.

 

[5] Monkman, Kent. Foreword: Shame and the Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. January, 2017. Pg 9.

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Anna Woodmass

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