'Big, bold, audacious' Kent Monkman artworks 'at home' at the Met, says curator

A bold commentary on North American history is one of the first things visitors to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art will see for the next few months — and it comes courtesy of renowned Cree artist Kent Monkman.

2-painting installation mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) on display until April 2020

Kent Monkman 'reverses the colonial gaze' with new paintings at the Met

3 years ago
Duration 3:29
Visitors to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art will be greeted by two 'bold' new paintings from Cree artist Kent Monkman for the next few months.

A bold commentary on North American history is one of the first things visitors to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art will see for the next few months — and it comes courtesy of renowned Cree artist Kent Monkman.

Monkman, a member of the Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba, was in Manhattan Tuesday to help unveil two massive new paintings in the Met's main entrance.

Commissioned by the New York museum, the artworks are part of a series which invites contemporary artists to create new pieces inspired by art in the Met's collection. Monkman is the inaugural artist to be featured in the Great Hall.

"To be commissioned here by the Met is a huge moment for me," he said Tuesday during a media preview of the installation, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People).

"As a painter, I wanted to make these massive monumental paintings that could really hold the spaces on these walls. I was so thrilled to see them going up last night and really feel like they fit in this space." 

Monkman's two densely detailed, large-scale (3.36m-by-6.7m) paintings feature Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, his gender-fluid alter ego that the Met described as a "supernatural being who reverses the colonial gaze to challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples."

Cree artist Kent Monkman discusses his two monumental new paintings installed in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Tuesday. (Sean Conaboy/CBC)

The work Resurgence of the People offers a fresh interpretation of German-American artist Emanuel Leutze's iconic oil painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. Monkman re-imagines the scene with his two-spirited character helping to steer the boat. 

Meanwhile, the painting Welcoming the Newcomers sees Miss Chief and other Indigenous people greeting arrivals to the shores of North America. It takes inspiration from a wide variety of artworks, including The Natchez by Eugène Delacroix, Hiawatha by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Mexican Girl Dying by Thomas Crawford. 

Resurgence of the People is one of two massive new works by Monkman, part of the installation mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People), on display in the Met's Great Hall. (Metropolitan Museum of Art )

"When I came and did my research here, I really wanted to focus on well-known works," Monkman told reporters at Tuesday's preview.

"There are many incredible things in the vaults, but I really wanted viewers to connect with some of the 'greatest hits' here at the Met. I love the Old Masters. I love [Peter Paul] Rubens. I love Titian. I love Delacroix … These were striking images to me because it's about this tension, these relationships, the dynamism of their poses."

Built around themes of arrival, departure, migration and displacement, the two paintings offer "a wonderful way for people to think of the history this place, the history of this museum, the larger history of this continent, of [its] migrating populations," Monkman said.

Celebrating the Indigenous experience

Monkman's artwork offers a fresh take on history and fills the gaps in traditional paintings with powerful commentary on the Indigenous experience and colonialism — a perspective he said has been erased from view.

"What I'm trying to do is to authorize Indigenous experience, both historic and contemporary, into this canon of art history. We've been erased from the art history of this continent. The settler artists that came here, they had their own vision of this continent, which was essentially an empty landscape," he said.

And far from being "passé," the format of historical paintings offers a sophisticated tool for artistic storytelling, said Monkman, who is based in Toronto.

"Here's this incredible genre of painting that has been discarded. Yet it holds so much potential to tell stories that relate to where we are today — specifically Indigenous stories that have never been authorized into paintings like this."

Welcoming the Newcomers is the second new work, with the full installation mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) remaining on display until April 9, 2020. (Metropolitan Museum of Art )

It was Monkman's appreciation for (and upheaval of) the history painting tradition that drew the Met to him in the first place, said Randy Griffey, a Met curator of modern and contemporary art.

"One aspect of [Kent's] appeal had to do with his real interrogation of the history of art. The Met is really taking a look at itself about art history, the kinds of stories we need to be telling. And Kent's work tells some of the stories that we need to be telling," he said.

"Kent's work is bold. It's big. It's audacious. It just seems right at home [in this space] ... The Great Hall emits a great sense of cultural authority and meaning. That's also one of the reasons we wanted to show his work here — to showcase these underrepresented stories, these histories that have been [erased] and to highlight them in this very public space."

At the Met Thursday night, Monkman will take part in a discussion about his new works and deliver a lecture as Miss Chief. mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) will remain on display in the Great Hall, just inside the Met's 82nd Street entrance, until April 9, 2020.

Monkman's ongoing solo exhibition Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, which has toured museums across Canada, continues at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until Feb. 2020. A forthcoming memoir of Miss Chief is due out next fall. 

Watch | Kent Monkman returns to Winnipeg's North End, the inspiration for his Urban Rez series:

Kent Monkman goes back to the Urban Rez

4 years ago
Duration 6:07
Cree artist Kent Monkman goes back to Winnipeg's North End, the neighborhood that inspired his Urban Rez series.

With files from Jackie Ruryk and Sean Conaboy