Kent Monkman at Project Gallery

Earlier this month, Project gallery hosted a busy opening night for Kent Monkman’s new show, Miss Chief’s Praying Hands. Monkman is a Canadian multi-disciplinary artist of Cree and Irish descent who is best known for challenging traditional Eurocentric depiction of North American history by using an academic and Romantically influenced painting style to create an alternate perspective. He often juxtaposes classical European painting references with contemporary figures inserted inside, often with sublime landscapes and biblical allegories. This most recent show is focused on Miss Chief Eagle Testikle, Monkman’s alter-ego, a gender fluid and playful performer. Miss Chief works to deconstruct the way in which settler art history and institutions have created European norms on Native lands and this method of intertwining history with fiction is what makes Monkman’s work interesting and relevant.

Installation view of Kent Monkman, Miss Chief’s Praying Hands, Project Gallery, 2018

The resulting effect often brings attention to power dynamics and societal norms both historically and in contemporary life. Miss Chief is empowered and often ends up reversing this dynamic or highlighting in such an obvious way that the viewer can’t help but question the legitimacy of the allegory or painting it is referencing. Many of the pieces in this show are prints and studies of older paintings or series, and they are brought together to create an appreciation for Miss Chief and her ability to join opposing sides in a coy way while offering a softer narrative than is expected.

Kent Monkman, The Daddies, archival giclée print on Epson Legacy Fibre paper, 11″ x 21″, edition of 100

The exhibition fills the gallery with a range pieces that include digital prints, etchings, sculptures, drawings, film, and various art objects. But arguably the most interesting piece and the piece to go for is the large acrylic painting titled Wedding at Sodom. This 2017 painting shows a wedding amidst a chaotic scene in the city of Sodom, referring to the biblical story of the city of Sodom and Ghomorra, wherein the cities were destroyed by God for their sins which are believed to be of a sexual nature. To this day sodomy refers to the act of non-procreative or anal sex. Amidst the chaos of Sodom, a minister officiates a marriage between two young men. Among the other figures, we see a somewhat erotic depiction of some naked men wrestling. A young black male pours ale into the jug of a young while male. Monkman often uses significant historical symbolism and allegory to call attention to societal norms and historical accuracy. What makes this painting interesting is that it speaks a language that we know but offers an alternative emphatic message which is both beautiful and tragic.

Kent Monkman, Wedding at Sodom, from the ‘Rendezvous’ series, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 72”x120”

Along the adjacent walls are framed drawings and studies for larger paintings in various ornate frames. These are more intimate scenes and ideas which feature Miss Chief as well bison and a very comfortable beaver. Some scenes are depicting Miss Chief in full glam while others portray her on horseback or aiding an injured man. Other walls contain copper plate etchings in ornate frames, and digital prints of Monkman’s Rendezvous Series.

Installation view of prints of ‘Rendezvous’ series

Another unique experience of this show are two video paintings on display which are part of the Human Zoo series. In these videos Monkman has animated a historical painting with Miss Chief and other various moving characters. In the Human Zoo, George Catlin has set up a gallery in a German city. Catlin himself was a painter, known best for his portraits of Indigenous peoples and tribesmen in the 1800s. He produced hundreds of paintings for his Indian Gallery which he toured to various cities in the hopes of attracting buyers. He was a showman and a performer, delivering public lectures based on his experience living with American Indians and eventually sought to sell his Indian Gallery to the U.S. government. In Monkman’s video, the Human Zoo, he beckons the audience and ramps up for a performance and starts drumming to get Miss Chief to dance to his music. Miss chief reluctantly dances and then slowly begins to enjoy it. The crowd cheers and claps for the performance and tosses coins into Catlin’s hat. At the end, Catlin collects the change given by the audience and refuses to share it with Miss Chief who is then visibly annoyed and the video loops back to the beginning.

The second video, the Immortal Woman, shows Miss chief standing inside of C.W. Eckersberg’s 1813 painting. In it a cardinal shyly approaches Miss Chief who is dressed in her signature full red glam look. The young man is excited but continuously leaves Miss Chief hanging when he gets too close.

Film still of ‘the Immortal Woman’, Edition of 5, 2015

In another piece, Miss Chief appears in a photograph made in collaboration with Chris Chapman. The photo is black and white and is styled to look ancient, perhaps from the time of the first settlers. Miss Chief stands alongside her male partner hand in his shoulder like a classical husband and wife portrait. Below this are love lockets with the same photograph inside. Her love connection with her colonial partners wonderfully personifies the twisted history of indigenous peoples and colonialism.

‘A Promise is Forever’ Kent Monkman in collaboration with Chris Chapman, edition 100 + 5 AP

Everybody seems to want a piece of Miss Chief and this theme is certainty capitalized on. The show is chock full of a variety of art objects ready for purchase to any wealthy and virtuous persons wanting to own a piece of the artist. Most objects are one of many editions. Items on sale include her fire red boots, skateboards, a ceramic plate, a few hand carved limestone pieces, locket necklaces and of course Miss Chief’s Praying Hands.

Kent Monkman, Miss Chief’s Praying Hands, silicone rubber, 4.5″ x 10.5″, edition of 10 + 1AP

Monkman is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic contemporary artists in Canada. He is able to live prolifically between the institution of fine art as well as the commercial sector. What is it that makes his work so desirable both to cultural curators as well as art buyers? He has been able to fill a gap in Canadian art culture that is unique and at the same time universally understood.

Text and photo: Nazli Nahidi

*Exhibition information: Kent Monkman, Miss Chief’s Praying Hands, August 2 – September 1, 2018, Project Gallery, 1210 Dundas Street East, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sat, 11 am – 6 pm.

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