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Restorying Justice: Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice—A Story of Resilience

The Museum of Anthropology at UBC is honoured to be the final stop on the national tour of Cree artist Kent Monkman’s exhibition, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. This show has been receiving much acclaim since it opened at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto over three years ago. Monkman created the exhibition as a response to the Canada 150 celebrations in order to (re)tell Canadian history through the eyes of his glamorous alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Flying through time and space with ease, Miss Chief boldly returns the colonizer’s gaze in Monkman’s monumental history paintings and three-dimensional installations while challenging gender norms.

Scent of a Beaver, Kent Monkman, 2016. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Nine chapters from Miss Chief’s excerpted memoir in Cree, English and Frenchi guide the exhibition narrative. It begins in the 18th century when British and French fur traders vied for Indigenous alliances and dominance over the land and its bounty. Scent of a Beaver, a mechanical installation of Miss Chief swinging between French General Louis Joseph de Montcalm and British General James Wolfe (who famously fought in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759), recalls Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s most celebrated painting The Swing (circa 1767), while also demonstrating Miss Chief’s playful trickster spirit as she inserts herself into one of Canada’s foundational origin stories.

Kent Monkman, The Daddies, 2016. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of Christine Armstrong and Irfhan Rawji.

This exhibition is a kind of “restorying”ii iii that transforms the familiar nationalist myth of British-French settlers discovering a “new world,” ripe for possession and resource extraction, into a counter-narrative focused on Indigenous strength, healing and resurgence.

Starvation Table, Kent Monkman, 2017. Installation view from Art Museum at the University of Toronto. Photo by Sadie MacDonald.

Visitors to the exhibition are compelled to witness past and ongoing Indigenous encounters with colonialism, both brutal and ridiculous. Monkman believes that this exhibition is “an opportunity to educate people and to create art that could move people, create awareness and inform… I am entering the dialogue to encourage people to think differently about Canada.”iv Walking through galleries that speak of the incarceration of Indigenous bodies on reserves, in Indian residential schools, in prisons and on the “urban rez,”v Monkman articulates through image and emotion the historical Indigenous experience of moving from plenty to deprivation, and from self-representation to silence and invisibility. Monkman counters this inhumanity with redemptive recontextualizations. A central example is the restaging of Robert Harris’ 1884 painting, The Fathers of Confederation, by seating Miss Chief naked (except for her iconic black high heels) on a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket. Succinctly titled The Daddies, the work demonstrates how Monkman cunningly uses juxtaposition, symbolism, wordplay and camp to destabilize the colonial power structure—he defiantly depicts Miss Chief’s “empowered Indigenous sexuality”vi as she confronts the shocked founders of Canada.

Monkman’s paintings mimic, yet also correct and counter, Euro-Canadian romantic landscape paintings of wilderness replete with beavers, bison and bears. Animals transform from their value as pelts back to supernatural beings with efficacy as spiritual guardians. The installation Starvation Table depicts the trauma of falling from feast to famine, from abundance to dispossession, due to colonial greed. Monkman’s gathered work reverses this descent by recuperating Indigenous language, revealing ongoing Indigenous familial and communal bonds, and embracing the power of love (as in Love Conquers All). In this way, he authorizes Indigenous perspectives and validates this restorying into the canon of Canadian art history and into the contemporary world we share today.

Notes
Gordon, Gisele. 2017. Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. Excerpts from the Memoir of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Foreword by Kent Monkman.
ii Corntassel, Jeff, Chaw-win-is and T’lakwadzi. 2009. “Indigenous Storytelling, Truth-telling and Community Approaches to Reconciliation,” ESC: English Studies in Canada 35(1):137-59.
iii  Regan, Paulette. 2010. Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada. UBC Press: Vancouver.
iv Enright, Robert. 2017. “The Incredible Rightness of Mischief: An Interview with Kent Monkman,” Border Crossings 143.
Monkman, Kent. 2017. “Foreword,” Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience. Excerpts from the Memoir of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.
vi Kennedy, Robert. 2019. Decolonizing Art History with Kent Monkman. CBC Radio Ideas, July 5.