Winnipeg's North End a backdrop for renowned artist Kent Monkman to explore colonialism, resilience

Kent Monkman's latest exhibition, which etches Indigenous expressions into a picture of Winnipeg's contemporary streets, had its Winnipeg opening on Friday at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Monkman's latest exhibition, now at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, blends Indigenous history, contemporary settings

Winnipeg-born artist Kent Monkman speaks with media Friday morning at an unveiling of his solo exhibition Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. (Ian Froese/CBC)

A prolific and provocative Canadian artist hopes his latest exhibition reminds Winnipeggers their city is born out of Indigenous resilience.

Kent Monkman's exhibition Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience etches Indigenous expressions into the backdrop of contemporary Winnipeg — his hometown, and the latest stop for the touring exhibition.

"These are places that Indigenous people have been living in for thousands of years," Monkman, an artist of Cree ancestry, said Friday morning at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, where the show will run until next February.

The 80 paintings and museum objects in the exhibition, he said, are "really to refute these ideas that were brought by Europeans."

"European modernity … was about coming to North America with a blank slate and having everybody just conveniently forget that this land belonged to somebody else," he said.

He challenges those ideas in paintings like The Deposition — which the WAG announced Friday morning was being gifted to its collection by an anonymous donor.

The piece, part of Monkman's Urban Res series, portrays a number of First Nations men cradling a woman from one of Picasso's paintings. But she is a flattened two-dimensional character, representing both the compression that Indigenous cultures have faced in society and the inhumanity that Indigenous women have endured.

Kent Monkman's The Deposition was gifted to the Winnipeg Art Gallery by an anonymous donor. (Submitted by Winnipeg Art Gallery)

Monkman draws inspiration from the Old Masters, some of the greatest painters in history. 

"I wanted to use their ways of painting the female nude to talk about violence perpetrated against Indigenous people, and also the violence perpetrated against the female spirit."

Monkman now lives in Toronto, and his work has been featured across Canada and beyond. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City recently accepted one of his commissions.

Shame and Prejudice, which has already toured to Calgary, Halifax, Charlottetown, Montreal and Kingston, Ont., opened in Toronto in 2017 — the year Canada celebrated its 150th birthday — and uses Winnipeg's North End as the setting to explore colonialism through an Indigenous perspective.

It is Monkman's second solo exhibition at the WAG. He grew up taking art classes at the gallery.

"This entire project was really informed by my experience as a child growing up here," Monkman said. "But it's more than that — it's informed by the experience of my family and my ancestors that are from this territory."

Winnipeg themes

His ability to fuse such themes in his work is remarkable, says Jaimie Isaac, the WAG's curator of Indigenous and contemporary art.

"It's amazing that he can, at once, address art history and the telling of modernity, but also reference contemporary times and social climates within the streets of Winnipeg," she said.

While admiring the new addition to the WAG's collection, Isaac notes how Monkman seamlessly integrates symbols and iconography.

As examples, she points out the "204" tattoo on one man's neck, a pair of beaded runners and a crow flying away with jewlery it has snatched. Isaac spots the initials of the Indian Posse street gang imprinted on a stop sign.

Several of Kent Monkman's paintings will be on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until Feb. 9, 2020. (Ian Froese/CBC)

It is clear in his exhibition that Monkman's early years in Winnipeg shaped his artwork.

"I really feel like Winnipeg was such an important part of who I am. My ancestors are from this territory," he said.

"I think often about Winnipeg as a troubling place. It's a difficult place to be an Indigenous person in many ways — you see the fallout of colonialism, it's so visible here, and yet there is this spirit of resiliency and positivity in the people," Monkman said.

"I also gain a lot of inspiration from all the amazing things that are happening here, in terms of the Indigenous artists and the cultural work that's happening here."

Shame and Prejudice runs at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until Feb. 9, 2020.


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at