This episode originally aired on April 19, 2016.
Kent Monkman’s work is always captivating – whether it’s a lush landscape, an immersive mixed media installation or a vibrant performance. The focus is on his flamboyant, dual-spirited artistic persona, Miss Chief or “Mischief” – a kind of trickster figure in drag through which Monkman challenges the representation of indigenous peoples 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 identified strongly with his Indigenous roots. His work is exhibited in Canada and internationally, including at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. He has exhibitions at the National Gallery of Canada through summer 2022 and the Royal Ontario Museum in the fall.
Monkman spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto in 2016.
Inspirational and disturbing
“I grew up in River Heights, Winnipeg, in the 1970s, which was mostly non-native. So all my classmates were Anglo-Saxon kids. I went to the Manitoba Museum which had life size dioramas on display. They still have them, they are fascinating to look at because they are representative of indigenous cultures in this kind of pre-contact time capsule.
It was inspiring to see this idyllic display of First Nations cultures. But you stepped outside the museum and there on Main Street was Skid Row.
“There is a bison hunt that is as realistic as can be in terms of a museum diorama. It was inspiring to see this idyllic display of First Nations cultures. But you walked out of the museum and there on Main Street was Skid Row. You have the consequences of colonization and people harmed by colonization.
“I remember my classmates asking me, ‘What happened to your people?’ Because I was First Nations and I just couldn’t answer that question because I didn’t speak the language.
“I didn’t know how to reconcile what was in the museum with what had happened and what was on the streets of Winnipeg at the time.”
“I’m not a trained sculptor, so basically I’m working with the figure sculpture or the figure puppet. I’m not trying to make classic or beautiful figure sculptures. I use these cheesy, cheesy, human mannequins that I’m used to depicting people in dioramas and then trying to create an environment that simulates a natural environment.
I use the components found in dioramas to create an artwork that feels like a diorama—the furniture or animals of a life-size figure—and use these to challenge some of the First Nations depictions.
“Or it could actually be an interior, but the idea is that I use the components found in dioramas to create an artwork that feels like a diorama – the furniture or animals of a life-size figure – and they use some of the to challenge depictions of aboriginal people.”
An empowered alter ego
“The creation of Miss Chief was a strategy to re-challenge the subjectivity of 19th-century artists like George Catlin, John Mix Stanley, and various others who painted 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, painting himself in his work.”
“It was also about the artist’s ego, promoting themselves, having such a strong position.
I wanted my alter ego to be the center of attention in a very aggressive way, to reverse the view as a First Nations artist who seems to be living in this era and an observer of European settler cultures.
“I wanted my alter ego to be the center of attention in a very aggressive way, to reverse the view as a First Nations artist who might be living in this era and the observer of European settler cultures. It has proven to be an effective way of disrupting this historical narrative – the dominant narrative that we have been given through art history and through storytelling.
“And because she’s a diva alter ego, she kind of demands to be the center of attention.”
“I wanted to disrupt people’s perceptions of this preserved history. We go to museums, we see these paintings. We accept that this is the definitive version of the settlement of North America – made by European settler artists. So my intention was to win people over by asking what might be uncomfortable questions about what actually happened when these paintings were being made.
“People have been forcibly evicted from the country. These landscapes were all empty – most of them were empty. But there were many, many nations of people living in North America who were displaced.
I wanted to think about the indigenous people and their relationship to the land.
“So the images were lies to me, and at least they were subjective. It was a story of North America told from one side. I wanted to think about the indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land. It is a fact that they lived in these landscapes but were never visible – or very rarely were they ever painted in these landscapes.
Focus on resilience
“In a lot of my work, I really prefer to focus on the resilience of indigenous peoples, the resilience of our cultures. We are still here – despite all these “disappearing Indian” theories, 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 prefer to focus on the resilience of indigenous peoples, the resilience of our cultures.
Kent Monkman’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.