Writers & Company

Kent Monkman's subversive art creates a counter-narrative of Indigenous experience

In this 2016 conversation, celebrated visual artist Kent Monkman spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about using his art to reflect Indigenous resilience.
Kent Monkman is a Canadian First Nations artist of Cree ancestry. (Ryan Van Der Hout)

This episode originally aired on April 19, 2016.

The work of Kent Monkman is always arresting — whether it's a lush landscape, an immersive mixed-media installation, or a vivid performance. At centre stage is his flamboyant, two-spirit artistic persona, Miss Chief, or "mischief" — a kind of trickster figure in drag, through which Monkman challenges the representation of Indigenous people in Western art. 

Monkman was born in 1965 to a mother of English and Irish descent and a Cree father. He grew up in Winnipeg, where he strongly identified with his Indigenous roots. His work is widely exhibited in Canada and internationally, including at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Through the summer of 2022, he has exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada and at the Royal Ontario Museum in the fall.

Monkman spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto in 2016.

Detail of a painting by Kent Monkman. Painted in a realistic style, two figures appear at centre, floating in the heavens. The figure at left is a male figure with long black flowing hair wearing flowing pink and white fabric and black pumps. They appear to float on a cloud. At right, another humanoid figure clothed in draped fabric, but with the head and tail of a snarling coyote.
Detail of a painting by Kent Monkman. (Kent Monkman)

Inspiring and troubling

"I grew up in River Heights in Winnipeg in the 1970s, which was predominantly non-Native. So all of my classmates were Anglo-Saxon kids. I'd go to the Manitoba Museum, which had a display of life-size dioramas. They still have them. They're fascinating to look at because they are representative of Indigenous cultures in this sort of pre-contact time capsule.

It was inspiring to see this idyllic representation of First Nations cultures. But you would step outside the museum and there on Main Street was Skid Row.

"There's a bison hunt that's as realistic as you can get in terms of a museum diorama. It was inspiring to see this idyllic representation of First Nations cultures. But you would step outside the museum and there on Main Street was Skid Row. You have the fallout of colonization and people that have been damaged through colonization.

"I remember my classmates would ask me, 'What happened to your people?' Because I was First Nations and I just could not answer that question. I didn't have the language.

"I didn't know how to reconcile what was in the museum and what had happened and what was on the streets of Winnipeg at that time." 

The Rise and Fall of Civilization | Mixed Media Installation - 2015 | Gardiner Museum (Jimmy Limit)

Mixed mediums

"I'm not a trained sculptor, so I basically work with the figure sculpture or the figure mannequin. I'm not trying to make classical or beautiful figure sculptures. I'm using those cheesy, tacky, human mannequins that are used to represent people in dioramas and then trying to create an environment that simulates a natural environment.

I'm using the components that are present in dioramas to make an art piece that feels like a diorama — a life-sized figure's furniture or animals — and using those to challenge some of the representations of First Nations people.

"Or it could also actually be an interior setting, but the idea is that I'm using the components that are present in dioramas to make an art piece that feels like a diorama — a life-sized figure's furniture or animals — and using those to challenge some of the representations of First Nations people."

Triumph of Miss Chief | 84" x 132" — 2007 | Acrylic on canvas | Collection of the National Gallery of Canada

An empowered alter ego

"Creating Miss Chief was a strategy to, again, challenge the subjectivity of the artists in the 19th century, like George Catlin, John Mix Stanley, various others who were painting themselves in their own work. And it was a way of challenging the subjectivity of the work by saying, okay, 'This is an artist with his own creative license who's painting himself in his work.'

"It was also about the ego of the artist, to promote themselves, to have such a strong position.

I wanted my alter ego to be front-and-centre in a very aggressive way to reverse the gaze as a First Nations artist that could appear to live in that time period and be the observer of European settler cultures.

"I wanted my alter ego to be front-and-centre in a very aggressive way to reverse the gaze as a First Nations artist that could appear to live in that time period and be the observer of European settler cultures. So she has proven to be an effective way of disrupting this historical narrative — the dominant narrative that we've received through art history and through the telling of history.

"And because she's a diva alter ego, she kind of demands to be at centre stage." 

Sunday in the Park | 72" x 96" — 2010 | Acrylic on canvas

Disrupting perception

"I wanted to disrupt people's perception about this received history. We go to museums, we see these paintings. We accept that this is the authoritative version of how North America was settled — made by European settler artists. So my intent was to get people to ask questions that may be uneasy questions about what was actually happening when those paintings were being made.

"People were being forcibly removed from the land. Those landscapes were all empty — most of them were empty. But there were many, many nations of people that lived in North America that were being removed.

I wanted to think about the Indigenous people and their relationship to the land.

"So the paintings for me were lies, and at least they were subjective. It was a story of North America that was told from one side. I wanted to think about the Indigenous people and their relationship to the land. It is a fact that they were living in these landscapes but were never visible — or very rarely were they ever painted in these landscapes." 

Focusing on resilience

"In a lot of my work, I really prefer to focus on the resilience of Indigenous people, the resilience of our cultures. We're still here — despite all of these theories of the 'vanishing Indian,' the end of the trail; we are still present.

"We are still innovative cultures. We are still moving forward."

In a lot of my work, I really prefer to focus on the resilience of Indigenous people, the resilience of our cultures.

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

3 years ago
Duration 3:30
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.

Kent Monkman's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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