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Kent Monkman in his studio.Michael Seleski/Handout

It takes some nerve to paint your own apotheosis, but the Cree artist Kent Monkman has never lacked chutzpah. In the first paintings of his new show at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, there he is – or rather she – front and centre. His gender-fluid alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle descends from the skies wrapped in strategically placed pink drapery and represented as one of the original creative spirits of the universe.

Monkman has a long love affair with the dramatic compositions and burnished surfaces of traditional Western history painting, and viewers will sense the reference to the billowing clouds and flowing robes of Baroque religious art even if they can’t quite recall a specific Ascension or Assumption. The spirit herself, on the other hand, slides into an Indigenous cosmology: “Long ago – kisê-manitow, the creator, formed the sacred beings and all that there is,” explains a text written by Monkman’s collaborator Gisèle Gordon. “There was another sacred being created whom some of you do not yet know. I shall now correct that tragic omission with my usual great humility. That being was me, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. When I fell to askîy – this planet you call Earth – my form shifted from pure matter to cloud, to rain sprinkled with cosmic dust, and love.”

Of course, this is all tongue-in-cheek as Monkman once again uses the big art of the colonizer to undercut its own cultural monopoly. That has been his modus operandi for 20 years, as Miss Chief interrupts the Fathers of Confederation or rams into a raft carrying Queen Victoria, Marie Antoinette and Jesus Christ. Here, however, the approach is used not merely to critique colonialism, but to explore Indigenous knowledge. And at that point, as the mystical and the earnest replace the cheeky and the satirical, Monkman’s project becomes increasingly dubious.

Kent Monkman's painting, I Come From pâkwan kîsik, the Hole in the Sky.Courtesy of the artist

The impetus behind the ROM exhibition is a smart one. The idea was to have Monkman respond to the museum’s collections just as the institution itself is considering the role it might play in reconciliation and its duty to return Indigenous objects. The obvious tack might be a conversation with the First Nations collections, but that is not where Monkman headed. As he explained at a recent press preview, he considered the distance between the museum, which is a site of learning, and residential schools, where traditional knowledge was suppressed. What would those children have made of a school trip to the museum? And so it is not only Indigenous artifacts to which he responds – there is a lovely collection of beaded moccasins included – but to the dinosaurs and fossils to which young audiences are so drawn.

Initially, the result is a witty series of paintings featuring encounters between pint-sized Indigenous spirits – the mîmîkwîsiwak – and the oversized mammals of prehistory, pointing to an Indigenous cultural memory of the Cenozoic or even Mesozoic (to give those eras their Western labels). In one, the mîmîkwîsiwak (just like humans but about the size of your hand), clamber over a horned dinosaur skull while the actual skull sits nearby. In another colourful sci-fi fantasy painting, dinosaurs labelled the piyêsiwak and the misipisiwak (versions of the flying pteranodon and the triceratops) do battle, while nearby Miss Chief’s platform shoe is rendered in plaster as though it, too, were a fossil.

So far so good, but as Monkman moves from paleontology to cosmology, his illustrative style seems at odds with his themes. (Working with multiple assistants, he photographs scenes staged with costumed models and then reproduces them precisely in acrylic paint.) The blue-hued Constellation of Knowledge, for example, shows a gathering of unnamed figures sitting in the starry sky, gesturing dramatically toward … who knows what. As Monkman’s introduction explains, some of the âcimowinak – the Cree word for stories that contain history and knowledge – can’t be told, which leaves the museumgoer of any background puzzling as to what exactly these knowledge keepers know. If there are fascinating links between Western astronomy and Indigenous cosmology, the viewer is unfortunately kept in the dark. On the other hand, the meaning of Study for the Sparrow, a painting showing a small child in a residential school dormitory reaching up to a bird on a window sill, is sentimentally transparent. The bird is free, the child is not.

The blue-hued Constellation of Knowledge shows a gathering of unnamed figures sitting in the starry sky.Courtesy of the artist

Part of the difficulty with this exhibition is that it is trying to do too much. It proposes an alternative museology, lamenting that the ROM’s dinosaur skull has been dug up and turned into a commodity. It probes the pain of the residential schools. And finally, in its oddest moment, it celebrates Indigenous leadership in a series of hyperrealist portraits that place figures such as water preservationist Tasha Beeds and Indigenous social worker Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat in dramatic postures of celebration and defiance. The impetus to honour these 11 educators and activists is natural. What seems thoughtless, however, is to turn, without irony, to the propagandistic traditions of Western political and social portraiture to do so.

The remarkable achievement of the Anishinaabe painter Norval Morrisseau and the many Inuit artists who have emerged from Kinngait (formerly Cape Dorset) was the creation of a wholly original Indigenous iconography within the settlers’ art system. Today, First Nations and Inuit artists balance specific themes of indigenity within the global vocabulary of contemporary art. As Monkman unveiled two massive mural paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2019, he seemed to be succeeding at that level, borrowing compositions from familiar American paintings in that collection to offer an alternative history of the first encounter between Europeans and Indigenous people. Here, on the other hand, he has slipped from the tightrope as garish paintings of artificially posed figures seek to elevate Indigenous knowledge, yet are executed in a style that falls short of its subject matter.

Study for the Sparrow shows a small child in a residential school dormitory reaching up to a bird on a window sill.Courtesy of the artist

Not that the ROM concept is without merit; there is one room where its ambitions seem realized. It begins with an annoying trigger warning but inside it juxtaposes eight historic moccasins created by artists “once known” (a clever rethinking of “anonymous”) with small paintings representing eight losses: language, knowledge, family, medicine, ceremony, tradition, joy and hope. The final element is a larger painting referring to the hanging of eight Indigenous men at Battleford, Sask., in 1885 during the North-West Rebellion. It shows the moment kapapamahchakwew (Wandering Spirit) confronts his death under the eyes of the traumatized children of the residential schools and the dour nuns who oversee them.

Here, perhaps we can forgive the literalness of the historic scene because it speaks directly to those odd little allegorical paintings. There’s no larger explanation provided of the Battleford hangings, and unless we know our Canadian history well we are operating in the dark – a parallel to the way the Cree-speaking men faced their trial without a translator. And so perhaps we can also pause and think what one of those Indigenous children might have felt on a trip to the mysterious museum.

Kent Monkman: Being Legendary continues to March 19 at the Royal Ontario Museum.