Well I have been presenting to the public the Kent Monkman Exhibit on the 150th of Confederation, titled Shame and Prejudice, a story of Resilience. It is a national traveling Art exhibit and has been to several Canadians Cities, it is all part of the Truth and Reconciliation process between First Nations and non-indigenous people in Canada.
So you can imagine that we do get a lot of reactions depending on who the visitor is and where they are from or what they know. This is the all important word Knowledge , a negative reaction to the exhibit usually comes from lack of knowledge or ignorance which is often crass. Like in many countries Canadians do not know their history and really have no idea what happened in Canada in the last 150 years and little about the French period from 1534-1763, the past is a blank. A lot of what we were told is based on stories told badly or sound bites or myths like the War of 1812.
You will not find many First Nation People who think that the colonial project of turning 4 little colonies into a country in 1867 as a good thing. They certainly lost and to this day have been marginalized, though the situation is changing, some old attitudes die hard.
The whole exhibit is very complex and requires from the viewer time to think and to reflect, the great paintings of Monkman are layered with symbolism, even the clouds mean something. He paints in a style reminiscent of the baroque era (1600-1750) but also in the romantic age (1800-1900). You have to know the history of Canada and of the First Nations. The public in general is not really aware of the many various First Nations in Canada, some ask how many were there in total. Today there are 2 million indigenous people in Canada or about 5% of the total population. Canadian History was not taught in schools. In English Canada, students got British Imperial history and in French Canada we got the history of New France from 1534 to 1763 and then history of the struggles against English oppression, deportation of the Acadians 1755-58, rebellion of 1837, rebellion of the Metis in 1880, and it would then jump to historical moments like conscription of the First World War and Second World War, and finally the Quiet Revolution of the 1960’s. But the First Nations were largely absent from it all, in French Canada you would hear about the Huron, Algonquin, Iroquois, Abenaquis, other First Nations were not mentioned since they did not figure in our history. The relationship between the French and the First Nations was also very different in many ways. We never studied the history of British Empire.
So you can imagine how complicated it can be to present this exhibit when the public does not understand what they are looking at. I am not mentioning visitors from Asia or South East Asia who find the whole exhibit bewildering, this is not the image of Canada they have and for them First Nations are simply Indians who are cartoon figures. Many are astounded to hear this story. Then we get a few religious types who do not take kindly to the attacks on Christianity in the context of religion being used as a cudgel. The praying hands modelled after the work of Albrecht Dürer made of washable silicone gets them going.
The Confederation daddies (detail) Quebec Conference 1864. Miss Chief (mischief) with her/his LouBoutin designer high heels.
The bigger observations comes from the imagery, Monkman tells the story through the lens of a white colonial power, violence, dominance, oppression, racism, bigotry, misogyny. Using government documents and official correspondence, quoting Campbell Duncan Scott, CMG, Senior bureaucrat who writes about using residential schools as the final solution of the Indian problem. He also uses Jane Austen’s images of society and the societal context of the time she writes about. It makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, it bothers them to see such images which cracks the mirror of pleasantness so often associated with the Victorian era and what followed. Canada not so nice after all, no we did not have General Custer and the Cavalry, we had the RCMP as enforcers of the government and Cabinet approved policy of starvation to get rid of the Indian problem.
The Iron Horse (detail) with Miss Chief (read Mischief) Eagle Tes-Tickle
The other aspect that bothers a lot of people is the sexuality, nudity and open strong sexual messaging in the paintings and the fact that Monkman being Two Spirit and gay is not accepted by some visitors. We hear some truly disturbing remarks dismissing the whole exhibit as mere propaganda or labelling it degenerate art. Monkman to some is either psychotic or a pervert. At the same time I do not see those visitors as making any effort to understand or look at what is being presented.
Maybe the days when you visited a museum and examined the art works and looked at the composition and themes to enrich your knowledge or to seek beauty are past. Maybe people just want to be entertained and nothing more, why can’t museums be entertainment centres. Thinking in a critical manner is too difficult for some.
The Bears of Confederation (detail) Miss Chief (mischief) somewhat like a Canadian 50 shade of grey. The red handkerchief and the praying hands a strong symbolism for some.
Little did I realize that despite our advancement in the last 40 years on many topics attitudes do not change much. Some men still grapple with difficulty with the changing mores in society and feel very threatened by any demonstrations of men cross dressing, being gay, penises, etc. For some women nudity, erect penises, BDSM, anything departing for the heterosexual norm can be a difficult topic. Or it can be as simple as finding it difficult that something terribly wrong took place in Canada and you cannot blame someone else. It happened here not in some other country. Hopefully this exhibit will get visitors to think critically about their role in reconciliation in ways that make visible contemporary manifestations of colonization.