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A behind-the-scenes look inside the acclaimed Cree artist’s process as he creates 35 new works for a major exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum

Kent Monkman puts the final touches on a painting that will be featured in the 'Kent Monkman: Being Legendary' exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum.

It’s a rare rainy day in late August and Kent Monkman and his team of young apprentices are putting the final touches on a suite of paintings soon to adorn the walls of the Royal Ontario Museum.

For now, many rest on milk crates or sit sideways in a corner of his studio, a squat grey building in a nondescript Toronto neighbourhood. The neighbours likely don’t realize this former factory is now occupied by one of the most renowned painters in Canada.

Monkman points to a tiny misshapen star on a large painting of the cosmos. One of his deputies tears off a piece of green masking tape and sticks it to the wonky star. It will have to be touched up. But not necessarily by Monkman himself. He entrusts a handful of painters – assembled from social media and Canada’s top art schools – to help him complete his work. It’s a practice that harks back to the Renaissance and has been embraced by contemporaries such as Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei. (Though it’s not without its detractors.)

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Quincy, the studio chihuahua.

A few feet away, a pair of Monkman’s assistants sit before a nearly finished painting, brushes in hand, their eyes darting between the canvas and a couple of mounted iPads. A chihuahua snoozes at their feet. Monkman is still making his rounds. On goes another dab of tape. An earring on Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, the Cree artist’s two-spirited, time-travelling alter ego, doesn’t quite glimmer as it should. Monkman’s long-time creative director had hoped the work would be wrapped up by now, but his boss doesn’t seem worried. They’re close.

The 56-year-old’s new exhibition, Being Legendary, arrives at an inflection point in Canadian history. The discovery of unmarked graves on residential school grounds last year compelled the country to confront its dark past in a way it had never done before. It’s a reckoning the Winnipeg-bred painter has been anticipating for years. One of the most memorable works from Monkman’s 2017 exhibit Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience – a response to Canada’s 150th anniversary – depicts Mounties and priests ripping Indigenous children from their mothers’ arms.

The residential school system also served as the impetus for Monkman’s collaboration with the ROM. But in the end, that subject was whittled down to a single chapter of the sweeping exhibit, which follows Miss Chief through history, starting with “the beginning of everything.” The idea was to portray colonization in a way that felt proportional, “a brief blip in this long, long timeline.”

“I didn’t want the colonial project to overtake the conversation. It’s part of it, but it’s not all of it,” he said. “We don’t want to be defined by colonialism.”

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Monkman at his Toronto studio in August.

Monkman has become known for unflinchingly depicting the relationship between the colonizer and the subjugated, often flipping the script on famous Western paintings in a way that empowers his Indigenous subjects while humbling their colonial counterparts.

Being Legendary eschews that juxtaposition. Instead, Monkman celebrates the age-old connection Indigenous peoples have with the natural world, using traditional Cree cosmology to tell that story. In conceptualizing the project, he consulted with Cree elders, archeologists and astronomers.

“It’s about getting people to really think about how long we have been here and how deeply Indigenous knowledge goes out in every direction,” said Monkman, who is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba. “There’s a tendency to dismiss Indigenous stories as folkloric, but inside these stories is knowledge.”

Monkman's studio apprentices prepare paintings for the upcoming exhibition.

The exhibit features neon-coloured dinosaurs wearing robes, psychedelic-looking space scenes and, frequently, the mîmîkwîsiwak – tiny, ancient beings plucked from Cree mythology. Specific items from the ROM’s collection, such as dinosaur fossils and preserved moccasins, also made their way in. Who those moccasins originally belonged to is anyone’s guess.

“Yet we know who the individual is who brought them into the museum,” Monkman said. “Were they stolen? Were they purchased? We don’t know.” A lot of objects the ROM holds should “probably be repatriated,” he added.

Being Legendary ends with a series of portraits of Indigenous leaders: political, language and environmental activists, social workers, filmmakers, jingle dancers, knowledge keepers. The idea for the Wâsê-Acâhkosak, Cree for “shining stars,” was sparked by the clamorous debate over monuments to Canada’s colonial figures. It was something Murray Sinclair said that struck a chord with Monkman.

“Let’s not be the ones tearing them down because that will just attract more negativity our way,” Monkman recalled the former Ojibway senator and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission saying.

“Let’s build monuments to our own people instead.”

“Kent Monkman: Being Legendary” will open Oct. 8 and run until March 19, 2023.

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