Kent Monkman (born in 1965) is a Canadian First Nations artist of Cree and Irish ancestry. He is a member of the Fish River band situated in Northern Manitoba. He is both a visual as well as performance artist, working in a variety of mediums such as painting, film/video, and installation. He has had many solo exhibitions at museums and galleries in Canada, the US, and Europe. He has achieved international recognition for his colourful and richly detailed combining of disparate genre conventions and also for his clever recasting of historical narrative.
Monkman has attended various Canadian and US institutions, including the Banff Centre, the Sundance Institute in Los Angeles and the Canadian Screen Training Institute ,:1 and he graduated from Toronto's Sheridan College in 1989(Canadian Art).
Monkman currently lives and works in Toronto.
Monkman's work "convey[s] a deep understanding of oppression and the mechanisms at work in dominant ideology" by targeting modes of hierarchies and colonized sexuality within his artistic practice. Through his use of mimicry, Monkman subverts and de-centers the Western Gaze; he makes audiences aware that “you've been looking at us [but] we've also been looking at you".:30 In his paintings and performances he appropriates classical 19th century landscapes, speaking to the appropriation and assimilation of Native American culture by colonial settlers. He targets both the Native American communities and Euro American communities impacted by colonialism, generally playing with role reversal to do so.:30 Some of the binary topics he tackles are "artist and model, colonial explorer and colonized subject, gazer and gazed upon, male and female, straight and queer, past and present, real and imaginary". "Resistance, adaptation, and hybridity all feature strongly in Monkman's work".:24
Use of colonizers' images
Monkman's work often references and reconfigures forms from 19th Century White American painters, particularly George Catlin and the Western landscape painters. For example, his 2006 Trappers of Men takes an 1868 landscape by Albert Bierstadt, but portrays the scene at midday – rejecting Bierstadt's sunset original – and replaces Bierstadt's animals with perplexed White individuals from American art and political history, a Lakota historian, and Monkman's drag alter-ego.
Since Monkman uses the colonizers' own methodologies by use of language and imagery, "by choosing to speak, Monkman chooses to participate in using the Master's language, but his speech subverts rather than upholds the paradigm of oppression".:40 "The artist uses close re-creation of earlier artworks as an opportunity for ironic, often humorous representation of historical attitudes towards First Nations culture, attitudes that persist today".:1 He is criticized for using mimicry within his painting practise, this method of subversion requires him to still participate within an imperialist discourse as opposed to his performance practise which is considered to be more successful, but he “effect[s] change on a systematic level, to change the signification of the language of oppression, even the minority artist must appeal to a mainstream audience”.:40 "Monkman's work might be considered controversial to some, especially in Alberta, where traditional images of the Old West are held near and dear to the heart, but Monkman hopes it helps Albertans see historic representations of colonization under a new light".
Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle appears within his paintings, as well as in his performances and video pieces.:1 He uses drag as an outlet to produce his alter-ego, Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, (a trickster play on naming); Miss Chief being a pun on "mischief", and Eagle Testicle cheekily similar to "egotistical". "Share" being referenced in relation to Cher, "a high revenue-generating gay music icon":40 targeting consumerism and capitalism existent within current culture. Fashion, is used as a signifier in his practise of cultural change, it is a recurring theme Monkman explores in various media,:1 he accessorizes his alter-ego Share in Louis Vuitton and Hudson Bay brands, commenting on the commodification of the Native that has been generated through image production and consumption,:40 fashioning her in faux Louis Vuitton birch bark luggage, and an arrow quiver that Miss Chief has worn in live performances, [paintings] and films".:1 "Monkman has used the Louis Vuitton brand to refer to social hierarchies and monopolies of class, power and wealth, established by trade among Europeans and Native Americans".:40
Monkman identifies as both queer and a two-spirit, the two are similar in meaning, but cannot be used interchangeably.:2 Two-spirit is a term originally based on indigenous concept, derived from the Native North American queer community; "two-spirit [is] in honor of the existence of both the male and female spirit in one body".:3 Two-spiritedness still cannot be considered separate from the colonizers grasp, since there would be no need for such a term had colonization not occurred having an irreversible impact on gender identity through the formation of patriarchal gender norms such as compulsory heterosexuality.:3 "Monkman fuses this contemporary queer and camp icon with earlier Aboriginal notions of both gender-bending, shape-shifting trickster and the two-spirited individuals who held elevated status in many indigenous cultures... nearly wiped out by Christian colonization through violence and shame, this character is reappropriated by Monkman to challenge monolithic notions of authenticity and purity, and signify and embody queer and aboriginal power".:24 Monkman subjects this colonial ideology of gender and sexuality to scrutiny through his "use of homoerotic... to undermine the heterosexualist paradigm".:61 Monkman uses homoerotica in his practice in order to comment on the West's eroticism of the native, and modernity's continual perpetuation of this mentality.:6 He "makes explicit how Native North American bodies were made objects of consumption through art".:45 He is able to express his own individual gender/sex identity, with a reassurance that he too has belonging within Native American culture, yet his work never claims to speak for all Native American subjectivity.:45 By "identifying as mixed-race/mixed-gender in his work, Monkman effectively embodies and applies the concept of hybridity as a method for cultural navigation, demonstrating its transformative power in creating new identities and historical perspectives”.:2 “Homi Bhabha argues that by occupying a hybrid space, the colonized can renegotiate the terms of colonization, effectively moving beyond the identity constructs that have been created around him/her".:3 "By virtually travelling back in time in order to occupy romantic landscapes and scenes...Monkman claims his own territory -- where he is the master of his own history, sexuality, and identity".:5
Monkman creates space for not only his own queer identity, but all marginalized peoples by focusing on "the silencing of alternative gender traditions".:41 He deploys trickster methods, "a central figure in Native storytelling, the trickster is a mischievous rebel, a jester who consistently challenges authority and is unbound by the rules of time".:9 Bick quotes Hyde within their thesis referencing Monkman's use of trickster as a source of subversion; "the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on".:48 Using Share as alter-ego, he is able to use his own subjectivity, and sexuality as a source of empowerment to deconstruct imperial historical constructs. Monkman reimagines representation and interpretation through his use of and reference to 19th century classical style painting by prolific artists still very much celebrated by their countries today, with their works continuing to reside within galleries and museums, even though they are wrongly representational, as they painted what white audiences at the time wanted "an imaginary Wild West filled with Indians playing Indian".:16 These paintings by the likes of George Catlin and Paul Kane as well as the Group of Seven were meant for a European audience and advertised as "truth", since citizens from Europe were unable to travel at that time to North America themselves, "they took their paintings, portraits, mythologies and make-believe versions of the West to Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere". He criticizes the work of Catlin and Kane as "an aesthetic method of colonial silencing since their representations of Native North Americans simplified the complexities of the communities, reducing their subjects to stereotypes, and modeling them according to the dominant narrative of colonization".:24 Swanson argues that his work interrogates canonical images of Aboriginal peoples that "mythologized the 'dying' race of Red Men while propagating their own personas as heroic adventurers in a wild, undiscovered land".:24
Monkman negates this imagery by creating oppositional events, exposing the iconographic as problematic, since artists like Catlin and Kane construct racial scenes within their paintings, they become "a performance, a masquerade".:21 Monkman's work reaches a large audience because, like Kane and Catlin's, it appeals to a Euroamerican audience.:31 Catlin and Kane would paint themselves within their work, displaying their egotism. Monkman mimics this tactic by parodying this action, by placing his alter-ego within his painted scenes. His work speaks to a larger discourse of the power dynamic between artist and subject, and the amount of power the artist can exude in the creation and (mis)representation of their fictional work.:2 His practise is imperative in initiating a discourse surrounding unjust representation within fine art, Miss Chief's version of history is no more fictional than that of the European painters who aided in creating a misleading historical image of the native perpetuating "the notion that Native North Americans hav[ing] vanished or become frozen in time, preserved in Euroamerican paintings",:59 communicating to his audience the importance of assessing a piece of artwork critically as viewers, becoming aware of which gaze functions in its portrayal to its audience. He meshes Native North American and Western mythology together to create a hybridity of his own by using symbols such as cowboys or Ravens.:60 A cowboy being a symbol known to many as an indicator of the West’s power.:9 Monkman "link[s] our current models of oppression and domination to specific historical events",:65 to criticize and evaluate this domination in order to provide shared experiences of atrocities instead of a singular recount from the oppressors perspective and fictive depiction. "Monkman is responding to two common problems faced by Native North American artists and theorists, that of preserving tradition and that of retrieving that which has been silenced, as if one could reclaim a speaking position from the past, a space in time prior to and beyond the colonial order".:35 Monkman, "does not attempt to resurrect the past as it was":41 but rather implies that knowledge of the past can inform the present and future. "Mischief functions as a trickster figure who blurs gender binaries, comically wreaking havoc with order and reason, as a way of insisting on Aboriginal subjectivity, agency, and survival".:24