One day back in December, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art was still open, I approached its doors with some trepidation. I was visiting New York to witness the unveiling of two large murals that the venerable U.S. institution had commissioned from the Canadian artist Kent Monkman, and I wondered which version of that sly trickster would be on show. The Cree artist from Toronto has won acclaim for his big canvases that position Indigenous figures and anti-colonial narratives in the midst of grand history paintings, but I’m not always convinced by his art. Some of the works read as a complex and satisfying revision of both Western painting and Western history; others feel like simplistic one-liners.
I needn’t have worried: Mistikosiwak (Wooden Boat People), the diptych Monkman created for the museum’s lobby, is his masterpiece. It’s a pair of giant and hugely detailed compositions that borrow imagery from the Met’s own art collection to look at the historical arrival of Europeans in North America from an Indigenous perspective, and then offer an image of Indigenous resilience in the present. I entered the museum an agnostic; I left a believer, convinced that Monkman had craftily inserted the hope of reconciliation into New York’s cultural dialogue.
How disappointing, then, to see Monkman next produce a piece of satire so crude that he has been forced to apologize to those the work was supposed to defend. To judge from images he released on social media last week, Hanky Panky shows a figure who looks like Justin Trudeau, pants around his ankles, bending over to take his punishment from Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, the gender-fluid alter ego who Monkman inserts into many of his compositions. A group of former Canadian leaders, including Sir John A. Macdonald, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper, look on in fear – maybe they are next? – while a crowd of Indigenous women laugh uproariously at the scene.
It is Indigenous women themselves who have cried foul. According to the artist’s original statements about the work, the women in the painting loosely represent the Cree tradition of a matriarchal legal council, and some have complained vociferously at the notion that such a group would oversee what they perceive as an assault. In his apology, Monkman promised to stop making that link in any future statements about the painting. The sexual imagery itself is also being debated. Monkman’s original statements positioned the scene as consensual: The artist said he included a red handkerchief in the bending figure’s pocket in a reference to the clothing codes used in the gay bars of the 1970s and 1980s, and indicating the wearer’s sexual readiness. Few viewers, however, could find the hanky, and on a first look the scene just appears as the prelude to a sexual assault.
Monkman often uses satire and humour to shocking effect in his work: The destabilizing Miss Chief is a figure of mirth. In Welcoming the Newcomers, the first of the Met panels, she appears on a rocky shore in nothing but a flowing scarf and killer heels. In the second, Resurgence of the People, her pose amusingly mimics that of Washington Crossing the Delaware, one of the Met’s best-loved paintings. But in those murals, all the clever references and reworked borrowings created an experience that invited the viewer to spend long minutes puzzling over the paintings and considering their meanings. (The Met provided explanatory panels listing Monkman’s various sources from its collection of historical works.) This time, on the other hand, the central image is so bald, the violent metaphor so simplistic, that it swamps whatever subtleties might be hidden elsewhere. If you’re not offended, it’s easy just to dismiss the work as a bad political cartoon.
The notion that the sex game with the politicians is consensual also seems strangely at odds with Monkman’s stated intention to bring attention to the Canadian state’s complicity in violence against Indigenous women: Most viewers are reading the scene as one of Indigenous retaliation, and in social media reaction, the term “revenge porn” crops up several times.
This controversy, with both detractors and some defenders of Hanky Panky, has been raging among Indigenous commenters, even though Monkman has sometimes been criticized for creating work intended mainly for a white audience. That criticism does seem to miss the point that it is the settler, not the Indigenous person, who needs to be confronted with an exuberant overturning of colonial history. On his good days, that is precisely what Monkman does.