History is written by the winners, the saying goes, but that truism is not feeling all that true these days. In what can only be a healthy development, the established truths of Canadian history have been subject to much revision and discussion.
Last year’s sesquicentennial of Confederation served an important purpose in fostering much of this debate, and, as the ongoing conversations surrounding Halifax’s Cornwallis statue attest, the debate is far from settled.
Cree artist Kent Monkman has been making work that tells a new story of Canada’s history, stories based in the experiences of first nations. Putting First Nations peoples into art history has been his method, and over the past decade or more he has built a reputation as one of the country’s most popular, and provocative, artists.
To mark Canada’s 150th last year, the University of Toronto Art Centre asked Kent Monkman to create a new body of work that would look at the anniversary from a first nations perspective. Monkman writes: “we cannot forget that the last hundred and fifty years have been the most devastating for Indigenous people in this country: deliberate starvation, the reserve system, the legacy of incarceration, the removal of children to residential schools and the sixties scoop, sickness and disease, persistent third world housing conditions on reserves, contemporary urban disenfranchisement, violence and poverty.”
Shame and Prejudice – A Story of Resilience is a result of his refusing to forget, and in its presence and aftermath, nor can we. Monkman appropriates the familiar museum genre of history painting, narrative and realist paintings that tell the familiar stories of our national myths. In Monkman’s hands those stories will never be the same.
Monkman’s work is inhabited by his alter-ego, a powerful trickster figure named Miss Chief Eagle Testicle. As he describes her, “A gender-bending time-traveller, Miss Chief Eagle Testicle lives in the past, present, and future. She embodies the flawed and playful trickster spirit, teasing out the truths behind false histories and cruel experiences.”
Through nine chapters of what the artist describes as excerpts from Miss Chief’s memoir, we see an alternative history to the colonization of this land and the treatment of indigenous peoples. From the founding of New France on the fur trade, through Confederation, starvation, reservation schools and the problems of the urban rez, Miss Chief Eagle Testicle takes us through a searing, painful and deeply important tour of Canadian history as we’ve rarely seen it.
With paintings, artifacts, and sculptural installations, the gallery is transformed into a journey towards a new understanding of what this country has been, is, and could be.
The familiar scene of the Fathers of Confederation assembled in Charlottetown is transformed by the addition of a naked Miss Chief reclining before them. As Miss Chief tells us in her memoir, “Naked I am at my strongest. I did not get to where I am today by being a wallflower.”
The show ends with series of paintings depicting the problems of the urban rez, set in Monkman’s hometown of Winnipeg. He spares us none of the drugs, violence and despair that affect so many first nations peoples in our cities. “Here in the cities, my people struggle,” says Miss Chief. “Crowded into ghettos in these prairie and northern towns, broken and bleeding from the wounds of our parents and grandparents, we may as well be surrounded by the same concrete walls of the prisons.”
No chapter in this painful story is more painful than Chapter 5, “The Forcible Transfer of Children.” The painting, The Scream, is almost to powerful for words: mothers screaming as their children are torn from them by priests, nuns, and Mounties. Children screaming as they reach for their mothers. It’s all the more powerful with the addition of a wall installation of cradleboards borrowed from museums, and the shadows of missing boards, an emptiness that speaks eloquently of all the children lost.
Monkman asks an important question in the foreword to the pamphlet that accompanies this exhibition: “Can this country begin to heal, reconcile, and offer restitution for the hundreds and thousands of shattered lives and damaged families, and for each individual life?”
Each viewer of Shame and Prejudice – A Story of Resilience will have to ponder that question for themselves. That we need to find an answer is self-evident. Quite simply, you must see this. The exhibition continues at AGNS until December 16.