Wachtel On The Arts - Kent Monkman
It's impossible to walk past a work by First Nations artist Kent Monkman without being seduced into a closer look. Whether it's a sublime landscape, a striking mixed-media installation, or a vivid performance, he's got you engaged. Multi-layered, immersive, and playfully perverse, Monkman's work tells the other story of Canada.**This episode originally aired April 19, 2016.
To meet Kent Monkman, you'd never guess that he has a flamboyant, gender-bending alter ego. An artistic persona -- a diva, both glamorous and subversive. While Monkman himself is thoughtful and articulate, he lets the aptly named -- and provocatively dressed -- "Miss Chief" take centre stage in his paintings, films, installations and performances.
The result is imaginative and attention-getting. But behind the campy seduction, there's serious intent. Monkman is a stealth artist -- using the ostentatious adventures of his central character, and the sheer beauty of his paintings, to tell a counter narrative of First Nations experience. He wants his audience to ask questions -- uncomfortable ones -- about the received history of colonization.
Kent Monkman was born in 1965, to a mother of English and Irish descent, and a father whose background was Cree. His parents were involved in missionary work in northern Manitoba, but the family relocated to Winnipeg when Kent was two. Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood, he says he always felt "different" -- identifying with his indigenous heritage, and finding an outlet in art and performance.
After he graduated from Sheridan College, in Oakville, Ontario, with a degree in illustration, he worked in theatre as a set and costume designer. He brought those skills into his film and video work, as well as his public performances. But his real desire all along was to make his mark as an artist.
It was the birth of his alter ego -- a kind of trickster figure in drag -- that empowered Monkman to challenge the representation of indigenous people in Western art in his own original way. His large-scale paintings of lush landscapes are populated with historical figures, from the explorers Lewis and Clark, to Modernist European painters, with "Miss Chief" always at the centre.
One of his exhibitions featured a full-sized teepee furnished with designer (Louis Vuitton) luggage, made of birch bark. His recent installation, called The Rise and Fall of Civilization, at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, incorporated life-size figures, Picassoesque sculptures, pictographs, (taxidermied) bison and a nine-foot buffalo jump.
Monkman's work has been exhibited internationally and is in the collections of galleries and museums across North America. He's currently at work on a major project -- a travelling exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, in 2017 -- focusing on the collision of cultures.
The Art of Kent Monkman