The Indspire Awards travel from province to province each year, and this year Winnipeg will play host to the 14 new honourees on March 21. Visual artist Kent Monkman will stand among those being honoured.

Monkman grew up in Winnipeg and came from one of just two aboriginal families living in River Heights at that time.

“I had an artistic identity early as a child,” he says, adding that his family encouraged his artistic tendencies.

“It was a form of entertainment because we didn’t have a lot of money for toys, but I had pencils and paper.”

The Indspire Awards:

  • Recognize outstanding career and youth achievements in the aboriginal community.
  • Formerly known as the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.
  • 14 laureates will be honoured on Friday, March 21 at the Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg.

He was also encouraged through high school by his teachers. Monkman took both art and drafting. He recalls his drafting teacher giving him a lot of room to create work that wasn’t just architecture-related.

Graduating from Kelvin High School in 1983, he left for the cultural diversity of Toronto and higher education at Sheridan College of Applied Arts.

"My big question was, 'How do I achieve [art] as a career?'" says the Cree painter.

He went on to do commercial work as an artist, and then in his early 20s he decided to be what he calls a "capital-A" Artist. 

“Kent Monkman has established himself as one of the most exciting and dynamic contemporary artists in Canada,” Steven Loft said in his nomination letter for the Indspire Award.

Each laureate is nominated by a person who champions them. For Monkman that nomination came from Loft, the co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Arts office of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Kent Monkman portrait

Artist Kent Monkman (Chris Chapman)

“His exuberant style, his technical prowess and his knowledge of art historical traditions combines to bring authority and authenticity to his work,” said Loft.

Monkman’s paintings are best described as turning stereotypical images of First Nations people on their head. He paints surprising stories of colonization, erotic images of men and women, and aboriginal identity where the commentary can be interpreted in many different ways.

A large portion of his work reflects on the two-spirit identity that is not widely known to mainstream audiences.

Two-spirited people carry both male and female traits. A mainstream audience will interpret that as homosexuality, but being two-spirited is deeper than that in the First Nations culture.

“It's important to explore how this identity was repressed and why,” said Monkman.

“Of course, this opens many questions about many aspects of colonialism, including government policies, and the impact of Christianity in aboriginal communities. As an artist, it is my role to push boundaries and complicate discussions about perceived ideas about aboriginal identities.”

'As an artist it is my role to push boundaries and complicate discussions about perceived ideas about aboriginal identities.'- Kent Monkman

Monkman finds inspiration for his work in his daily life, but when pushed to reveal the last concrete thing that inspired him, he thinks about a Spanish history painting he saw in a Madrid museum.

“It was a representational painting and it really affirmed my style,” he said.

“I felt I could still have relevance and power to tell stories through painting. It affirmed my belief that as a painter, I could use my paintings to tell stories.”

Don’t expect those stories to be explicitly spelled out for you, though.

“Art is strongest when it is open and allows for personal interpretation,” he said, adding that he strives to have work that communicates with people.

“I think it’s important for young people to see themselves in your work or can connect to your work.”

It’s that kind of thinking that will have people look at you as a role model. Monkman didn’t consider himself one until the award nomination.

Now he has given that more thought and realizes that the Indspire Awards come from the indigenous community — a community that will find inspiration in his work as long as he is being true to his own vision.