Three-and-a-half years, one pandemic and several anti-racism uprisings ago, Kent Monkman’s exhibition Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience opened at the University of Toronto’s art gallery. It was January, 2017, and Canada was launching into a year marking 150 years of Confederation. This exhibition focusing on the effects of colonialism on Indigenous people was Monkman’s response to the anniversary. The artist, who is of Cree descent on his father’s side, wanted to ensure there was critical contemplation to go along with all the celebration.
Since then, the exhibition has travelled across the country, a provocative contribution to the evolving conversation about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people. The show is a corrective: inserting Indigenous people into the Canadian history narrative and into the art canon.
This month, it opened at its ninth and final location, at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Its opening, delayed by COVID-19, takes on new resonance in the context of recent events challenging system racism, beginning with the Black Lives Matter uprising.
The exhibition itself hasn’t changed – although the installations are a little different at each stop – but the experience of it surely has transformed.
As you move through the galleries, it is impossible not to consider current events. Monkman’s works are ingenious: wise and sometimes cheeky, his beautiful large-scale paintings recall classic Western history paintings, but do not shy away from this country’s fraught history in terms of Indigenous people.
“My intention was to shake up the colonial institutions with this project,” says Monkman, in an interview this week. “So the fact that there is this big shift happening now and this big push to have different perspectives on our shared history, it’s very rewarding for me. Because I feel like I’ve been working in the trenches doing this for so long.”
He has been particularly pleased that museum practices are being re-examined to incorporate the perspectives of Indigenous people and other people of colour.
The exhibition at MOA was a moving experience for me on several levels. It was the first time I had been to a public museum since COVID-19, and that in and of itself felt like a gift. Only 30 people can be in the exhibition at a time, and this creates a hushed kind of intimacy. But Monkman’s work is so glorious and cutting, so striking and smart – and the subject matter so relevant and crucial, that this show would be unmissable in any circumstance.
“It will be perhaps perceived a little bit differently now,” Monkman says. “It’s been the same work I’ve been doing for many years and I think the timing is great. Still, three years later it’s saying many of the same things. But I think people might be more receptive to it.”
Monkman began putting together the exhibition in 2014. Told in nine chapters, it deals with the cruelties the Canadian government has inflicted on Indigenous people: starvation, incarceration, illness, the reserve system, forced removal of children from their families.
These are things that were missing from the school curriculum when Monkman, 54, was growing up in Winnipeg and were for many years since.
“I stepped into a role of an educator with Shame and Prejudice more than I ever had as an artist before, because the things I was looking at and examining ... were dark, dark chapters of Canadian history that have been kept under the rug and kind of buried,” Monkman said in the interview. “Shame and Prejudice was an effort to bring them into the light and to share perspectives of Indigenous experience across North America that was really a result of the colonial experience.”
In 2015, as he worked on it, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report and calls to action. In 2016, Colten Boushie, 22, was shot and killed by a white farmer in Saskatchewan; the country erupted in 2018 when the farmer was acquitted. In 2019, the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was issued, sparking an often heated and ugly debate over the use of the term “genocide,” which the report concluded had been committed in Canada.
Without being naive – there is a lot of work to do, of course – it feels like there has been progress in recognizing systemic racism against Indigenous people in Canada, in conjunction with a wave of political uprisings that have taken place since the killing, in May, of George Floyd in the United States. The emphasis on this issue feels like it alters – even elevates – the experience of walking through Shame and Prejudice.
Monkman’s work – two of his paintings today grace the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – often features his trickster-like, gender-fluid alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. At MOA, there she is in The Daddies (2016), posing nude on a Hudson’s Bay blanket, revealing herself to the Fathers of Confederation. In another painting, The Subjugation of Truth (2016), she appears as Queen Victoria in a portrait on the wall. In the installation Nativity Scene (2017), the baby Jesus bears a striking resemblance to her – as do the adult figures in the scene. One of them wears a sparkly Chicago Blackhawks jersey whose logo – surprise – once again resembles Miss Chief.
Some of this work hit like a poignant punch to the gut, in particular the painting The Scream (2017) in Chapter V: Forcible Transfer of Children. The painting – of children being torn from desperate mothers by Mounties and church officials – is installed in a dark gallery, flanked by cradle boards. Some are beautifully decorated; others are empty and completely unadorned, resembling gravestones or chalk outlines for murder victims. It is a very powerful thing to encounter.
“This is the one I cannot talk about,” the wall plaque reads. “The pain is too deep. We were never the same.”
The wall panels for this show are written in the voice of Miss Chief. Monkman is now collaborating on a full-length memoir with writer Gisèle Gordon.
I asked Monkman what Miss Chief would think about what is happening now in terms of Indigenous rights. “This is what she’s pushing for; she’s been pushing for the revolution,” he said.
The pandemic, Monkman says, has been very productive for him, as he has been able to spend most of his time at his studio in Prince Edward County, Ont., and focus on his work.
He became embroiled this spring in a controversy over a painting that is not in this show. Hanky Panky was interpreted by many as depicting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau being sexually assaulted as a group of Indigenous women look on, laughing. The image provoked a lot of outrage on social media, some of it directed at the women who modelled for the painting.
“I didn’t foresee that the models would be attacked for being accomplices,” says Monkman, who issued an apology back in May that “categorically” removed any responsibility from anyone else on his team, including the models. “I’ve got a pretty thick skin, I’ve been an artist my whole life and people can say whatever they want about me. But they went after the models on social media. And social media can be quite toxic. So there’s something that was happening beyond what I anticipated. And so I tried to mitigate that damage as best I could and so remove any responsibility from them.”
Beyond that, he says, he was not prepared for people to interpret the image that he intended as an allegory so literally “and not fully grasp what I was trying to achieve.” He says he has gained perspective thinking about this since the episode – and has learned a lot.
“I think it was an incredible thing to experience. With that painting I definitely put my finger on the nerve of many things and the conversation went through all stratas of Canadian society. It certainly achieved something in terms of getting people talking about a lot of different issues. I’m looking forward to having more conversations about that painting in the future.”
Monkman says the painting will be shown publicly at a Canadian institution within a year.
For now, if you are in Vancouver, Shame and Prejudice, at MOA until January 3, is a must-see: for its lessons, for the craft, for the experience of looking at art and having it inform your world view, and having your perhaps evolving world view inform the artworks themselves.
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