Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience

Traveling through time with curator Miss Chief Eagle Testickle to explore Trudeau, downtown Winnipeg and modern Cree life.

Lena Orlova // Staff Writer

Kent Monkman’s work unsettles. This is expected of the Cree artist, who masters disillusionment. UBC’s Museum of Anthropology stages his latest exhibition Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, curating Canadian history through the lens of Indigenous experience using multimedia art, installations, and complementary pieces from other galleries. 

Hailing from Winnipeg, he’s no stranger to publicity. The artist has gained a worldwide audience for his work, breaking down mainstream narratives of colonial history. He is also known for controversy and criticism for a painting featuring the likeness of Justin Trudeau in a pending sexual act surrounded by a group of Cree women laughing.

Monkman’s use of oil paintings creates an evocative atmosphere. “It envelops you,” commented Monkman on what originally inspired him about the medium. In The Massacre of Innocents (2015), the work gravitates viewers toward itself; it’s difficult not to be enchanted by the beauty and bounty of the raw Canadian wilderness. A closer look breaks the supposed serenity: it is focused on the slaughter of Indigenous people by settlers.

Kent MonkmanThe Massacre of the Innocents, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 72” x 102”.

“I wanted to work within the conventions to shock or surprise people,” said Monkman in an interview with Globe and Mail. “I wanted to deal with themes in my own life and my community, like colonization, the impact of Christianity and homophobia… I started looking at landscape painting and the art history of North America, as it was painted by Europeans, and at how they saw Indigenous people. The subjectivity of that narrative needed to be challenged.” 

Monkman revisits key moments in Canadian history in his work. He inserts the Indigenous perspective by way of his sultry alter ego: Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Miss Chief is a gender-fluid, mystical, time-travelling curator of the exhibition appearing in pieces such as The Daddies (2016) where she boldly rules the attention of a well-clad group of confederates. In such a grim setting, Monkman surprises with humour and a touch of absurdity.

Kent Monkman, The Daddies, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 60” x 112.5”.

As the exhibition unfolds, the artist continues to strip layers of illusion down to an uncomfortable consciousness of the modern-day Indigenous life, wildly unlike the pre-colonial depictions. “For Monkman, who grew up in Winnipeg, it was strange to see Indigenous people featured in museum dioramas as relics from a pre-contact age while also seeing First Nations people in the city’s downtown core,” writes culture editor Dorothy Woodend in Tyee. 

While speaking of inherited trauma, Monkman places Native resilience at the forefront of his stories. Using traditional spaces—museums and galleries—he creates art that transcends its frames, staying long in the hearts of its audience. “I loved museums as a kid, they are such a value. Sure, there are problematic things, but it’s an opportunity to share histories, to reach out to the world. I’ve been criticized for speaking to the settler audience, and it baffles me: don’t you want to speak to the world?”

Header image: Kent MonkmanNativity Scene2017Mixed media installation.

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