Remember to Remember

This article originally appeared on The Underground online

Six years ago, Kent Monkman saw a historical Spanish painting at The Louvre that changed the way he saw art.  Monkman, a  famous Canadian artist of Cree ancestry, admired the painter’s ability to convey emotion through the human figure with his almost-life-sized portraits. As he stood in front of the painting, Monkman was taken aback by the painting’s ability to “jump forward  150 years, grab me by the throat, and make me feel like I was part of the scene.” That feeling stayed with Monkman, and he knew he wanted to recreate that sensation in his audiences through his own art. When he was asked to work on a project for the #Canada150 celebrations, Kent saw a perfect opportunity to realize that goal.

July 1, 2017 marked the 150-year anniversary of Canada’s confederation–when the former British colonies became an independent nation. While some celebrated the milestone year–coined #Canada150–with concerts, fireworks, and reflections on significant moments and figures, others decided to scrutinize Canada’s history and address uncomfortable truths. Discussions about colonialism, oppression, and the erasure of Indigenous history and culture were brought up through a movement called #Colonialism150.

Monkman is renowned for his provocative style and for his reimagining of North American history and landscapes. Monkman uses painting, film, performance art, and installations to explore themes of loss, sexuality, colonization, and the experiences of Native American People. The exhibition Monkman created in response to the #Canada150 celebrations was titled ‘Shame & Prejudice’. Monkman explains that he wanted the exhibit to focus on the realities and consequences of colonization in Canada. One of the key pieces in the exhibit is ‘The Scream’.

The harrowing, but stirring, painting depicts children being torn away from their families to be sent to residential schools. Residential schools were established by the Canadian government in the 19th century to “take the Indian out of the child.” Children were separated by gender and forced to learn English or French.  Disconnected from their families and severed from their culture, children were kept in unsanitary, often crowded, schools where many suffered physical and sexual abuse. As many as 6,000 Aboriginal children died attending these schools.

Monkman gave a talk for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) lecture series ‘Rom Speaks’, titled  ‘Art & Identity’ in late October. The lecture was  part of the Anishinaabeg Art & Power lecture series, whose goal is to  explore the influences of indigenous arts and culture in the Canadian identity. According to Monkman, “Art is a way to transcend darkness and to speak to people emotionally, spiritually, and with humour.” Art is also a method of presenting unheard narratives, challenging popular ones, and putting a mirror to history,” Monkman explains.  “You would not find a picture of  children being taken away to residential schools in history museums because it doesn’t fit the narrative of this country.”

Wanda Nanibush, the inaugural assistant curator of Canadian and Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, was at Monkman’s Art & Identitylecture to lead a conversation. Nanibush asked Monkman if he considered himself a historian as well as an artist. Monkman doesn’t wholly agree with the description of himself as a historian but he admits  “the idea behind the exhibit is to provide a walk through time.” Monkman bases some of his artwork on official government artwork and historical pieces so that they seem familiar and real to audiences, but the pieces have a different, often critical, perspective.

One of the ways Monkman highlights an Indigenous Peoples perspective in his pieces is through the appearance of his alter-ego, drag persona, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Miss Chief is seen by many as a disruptive, but humorous, force and since her inception, Miss Chief has been rebellious in nature: she forces people into something of an intervention, as Monkman elucidates in his words. By having Miss Chief feature in some of the pieces and having Canadian history told through her eyes and words, Monkman intends to show a reversal of the role of the observed and the observer when it came to European settlers and Indigenous People.

Shame & Prejudice is supposed to articulate the effects of colonialism to its audience. Monkman compares the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous Peoples to the relationship between predator and prey: “European modernity is about a collective amnesia of the past,” particularly when it comes to the realities of the physical spaces.  In a series of paintings Monkman started a few years earlier, he set out to replace romantic backgrounds with contemporary Indigenous experiences  because he wanted “to remind everybody that every city North America was a place where Indigenous People lived, gathered, met, or traded, and cities have grown up out of these places.” Monkman gave Winnipeg as an example, whose name means “muddy water” in a western Cree language.

From Halifax’s Dalhousie University where the vice president of its Student Union put forward a motion asking the Union to refrain from supporting any celebrations of #Canada150 to UTSC’s own Doris McCarthy Gallery, where the exhibit Unsettled acknowledged Scarborough as the site of millennia of Indigenous history, Canadians, Indigenous and otherwise, are having conversations about Canada’s less-than-friendly and often-overlooked history. The exhibit,  like the actions of Dalhousie’s student union and the artwork of Kent Monkman, aim to unsettle the dominant narrative in Canada. This is particularly important given the self-congratulatory celebrations surrounding #Canada150. Indigenous history, culture and people live on unabated by Canada’s violence; if our country is as good as we believe it to be, their experiences need to be shared and considered.