Arts

Kent Monkman has sympathy for the Casualties of Modernity

Kent Monkman’s paintings are epic, action-packed, dramatic and witty, with scenes meticulously painted in various styles that range from Neoclassicism and Romanticism to 20th-century modernism. It’s like he’s flipping through a Rolodex of art history, landing on moments that point to the misunderstanding, misrepresentation and violence that have been enacted upon indigenous peoples’ cultures. Yet he does it with a sly sense of humour.

Artist's new film catalogues the damage wrought by ignorance and prejudice throughout art history

A still from Kent Monkman's film Casualties of Modernity. (Courtesy the artist)

Kent Monkman's paintings are epic, action-packed, dramatic and witty, with scenes meticulously painted in various styles that range from Neoclassicism and Romanticism to 20th-century modernism. It's like he's flipping through a Rolodex of art history, landing on moments that point to the misunderstanding, misrepresentation and violence that have been enacted upon indigenous peoples' cultures. Yet he does it with a sly sense of humour.

For example, his painting Miss Asia (2015) is a dislocated collage of every Asian stereotype imaginable. Soldiers in dated costume tangle with multi-armed Shiva. Ganesh has a six-pack and a kung fu fighter is en route to dropkick a panda. A Chinese soldier steals a Caucasian baby, Miss Asia rides a dinosaur, and the whole scene takes place against the backdrop of a temple that looks like Angkor Wat and, of course, the Great Wall of China. This tongue-in-cheek comedy gave rise to Monkman's alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, the glamourous and fairly unflappable protagonist in many of his paintings and now the star of Casualties of Modernity, Monkman's new film.

Kent Monkman (Handout - McCord Museum/The Canadian Press)

Again, Monkman is drawing on history in order to parse the politics of marginalization, and Miss Chief Eagle Testickle lends her own compassion and camp to the equation. Casualties of Modernity is set in the halls of a facility you'd be forgiven for mistaking as the General Hospital set, and the cast of medics populating it is equally recognizable, Including the strong-jawed doctor and slightly befuddled but adoring nurse. In Casualties, Miss Chief strides through the halls and wards of the unit, meeting each new patient with equal parts sympathy and slight horror.

The patients are the casualties of modernity: the flattened-out "primitive" bodies Picasso leaned on and made the subject of much debate about 20th-century art's use of the "other;" the male nude so popular during the romantic era; the false image of the hysterical woman. The film is both hilarious and sad, and as Miss Chief's day draws to a close, she seems to be having a cathartic experience similar to the viewer's.

In the film's longer-term home in the BMO Project Room, visitors can sit in appropriately uncomfortable bedside chairs while watching the film, only a few feet away from a life-sized Miss Chief and one of the languishing patients. It's an immersive way to see a film that makes an apt connection between the subjects of modern art and the marginalization of more than one culture. And Miss Chief emerges as a triumphant but benevolent guide through the miscastings and stereotypes that litter Western history.

Casualties of Modernity is screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival's Short Cuts Programme 4 on Friday, September 18th at Scotiabank Theatre. The Casualties of Modernity exhibition is at the BMO Project Room until November 27th. Visits are by appointment only, by phone or e-mail.

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