Kent Monkman gave me performance anxiety.
My politics and my day job both lead me to do some solidarity work with aboriginal people, and have provided opportunities to learn about local Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) culture, but nothing about the Cree culture that figures into Monkman’s work. And sure, a love of creative expression has left me with an pile of sketchbooks and a vague knowledge of Western art history. Truthfully, though, none of these things qualify me to write an insightful review of Miss America, Monkman’s current show at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain. It didn’t take me long, though, to realize I shouldn’t be so worried.
Monkman’s work is rich with historical and contemporary reference. It takes some thought to sift through the layers of meaning he creates by recreating visual culture using Western imagination and his own. But the work is accessible and engaging, even for people who don’t speak the languages of history and art.
Monkman himself wants the viewer to connect. Commenting on how modernity has distanced us from painting as an art form, he said, “I want to make painting relevant to now. I want the public to be able to go back and have an appreciation for the tradition of painting.” You don’t have to be an expert in aboriginal history or painting to appreciate the vibrance of Monkman’s painting and video, or his clever rekindling of colonial history.
If you are anxious about “getting it” there are a few things I can offer by way of a viewing guide, settler to esteemed reader. For instance, genocide: its patterns of violence still transform and repeat themselves today. The figures in each work don’t shy away from this reality, confronting physical, sexual, and social violence with lust, lizards, and weaponry. In the show’s title piece, Monkman creates a tumultuous picture of the effects of centuries of global conquest on indigenous lives and the world beyond Turtle Island, weaving the history of colonization together with images of its contemporary reverberations. The intimacy and vulnerability between white and indigenous bodies in “Miss America” is not to be missed.
In the time of Urban Outfitters and mass-produced cultural appropriation, we don’t get many reminders in visual culture that indigenous people are a real part of history, who continue to live today and into the future. Kent Monkman, however, reinserts aboriginal people into our image of the past and the beauty of North America. Visually, the show is a blend of eye-popping colour, delicate composition, and breathtaking landscapes. Generally, the phrase “breathtaking landscape” leads me to expect something more like “suffocatingly dusty paintings of jack-pines.” In this collection, Monkman’s use of the form wins me over, because his skilful introduction of indigenous bodies undoes the lifelessness that has always bothered me in landscape work.
While we often nod to the destruction of culture that came along with residential schools and the Indian Act, we seldom talk about just what was destroyed, and how. Monkman captures the interaction of desire, conquest, and violence in colonial history while reframing our still-colonized present to tell us something about the power of indigenous people today. Yes, we see indigenous bodies at risk, indigenous bodies turned away. Once placed into our field of view, though, these are indigenous bodies that we can’t erase from memory, through genocide, assimilation, or amnesia.
With Miss America, Monkman asserts memory, bodily presence, and textured lives in our imagining of both aboriginal life and life in North America. The work is powerful, enough to leave you with gears turning, eyes transfixed, weak at the knees. But don’t worry: you’ve got all the time in history to work it out. ■
Miss America by Kent Monkman is on display to Sept. 22 at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain, 372 Ste-Catherine W. (Belgo Building), #216, Montreal.
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