For the last few years I have been working as a volunteer guide in our National Museums. This Summer despite my campaign for Public Office as City Councillor in Ward 1, Charlottetown I am back at the Art Gallery of the Confederation Centre. This Summer we have the exhibit of Canadian artist of the Cree First Nation, Kent Monkman.
Shame and Prejudice a play on the title of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. The exhibit which is over 3 rooms is large and complex and full of very controversial material some with explicit sexual content of a homoerotic nature and S&M depictions, none of it is gratuitous, all speaks directly to the experience of the indigenous population of Canada at the hands of white British colonial Officials and later the Federal Government of Canada and its policies of assimilation through incarceration, starvation, violence, residential schools, sexual abuse of children, murder and disappearance of native women, reservations, etc.
Needless to say some of our visitors to the Art Gallery have a difficult time of it and are offended that the memory of the 150th Anniversary of Confederation is not celebrated by the native population as a great project to civilize them into the mainstream. The comments are acid and mean, some deny anything wrong took place and place the blame on what they see as liberal thinkers and other miscreants who seek to destroy official history and attack Western culture. Some visitors find the art work inappropriate for families, we do have signs warning of the subject matter posted throughout. Others accuse Monkman of being a homosexual pervert pushing Indian propaganda for money.
One of the great difficulty for visitors who are non-native is to understand the culture and way of thinking of a First Nation person and how Native Culture and life is completely different in its terms of reference if seen from a White European perspective.
One early concept natives had to deal with was the idea that you could sell or buy land. Politicians promoted this idea as a way to solve claims to large portion of territory by simply offering token prices to native groups in return for their surrender of all the lands where they lived. Once dispossessed native groups could be easily exiled to remote reserves. The concept is completely foreign to native people, how can you sell or buy land, it is like saying you can sell or buy clouds or the air we breathe. The Government of Canada and the Prime Minister of the time did not even consider that native people might not be able to accept or understand such a concept. The policies of the government was to make of them little children in need of the civilizing influence of white people, in other words natives faced cultural genocide. As a French speaking Canadian, I can understand this type of discrimination and racist policy, though Canada has two Official languages, we were told to speak White (English) until 1968. The end of the Seven Year War in Europe in 1763 and the defeat of France was the reason for dominance and oppression in Canada.
Mass slaughter of animals for profit or fun was another concept natives could not understand. Natives living on the Prairies saw the building of the intercontinental railway across Canada which led to the mass slaughter of millions of bisons for fun by white men passengers on the train. In turn this led to mass starvation by First Nations who lost a primary source of food. The Government of Canada was happy to get rid of the ”Indian Problem” as it was dubbed by Ministers of the Government in Official memos.
Monkman also explores and presents with his alter-ego Miss Chief (pronounced Mischief) Eagle Testickle the unfolding history of natives in North America. In native culture gender and sexuality is redefined as Two Spirits, a concept not acceptable within Judeo-Christian morality, this is yet another point of friction between natives and europeans. Many visitors ask with some alarm if he is a man or a woman, is he showing off his erect penis (Freudian power symbol) to the daddies of Confederation, are the daddies (fathers) lusting after him. Yes is the answer but the lust is greed, dominance and power over the native population, the intent pure evil by these colonial politicians. This is very disturbing to many who confess that they never heard of Canada’s history told in this fashion. One man asked me why would the government allow such a show, it should be closed down, I asked if he was advocating censorship.
In the painting, Bears of Confederation, clearly shows a Confederation daddy with praying hands firmly inserted in his butt, while he is being whipped by Miss Chief Eagle Testickle with spirit Bears dancing and chasing in a playful manner other Confederation daddies naked and clad in leather gear.
Further along in the exhibit in the portion reserved to the residential schools which existed for 100 years where children where physically and sexually abused, Canada had a painful enquiry exposing the facts and this led to important financial settlements. The washable silicone hands reappear as a symbol of prayer like those of Albrecht Dürer and as a butt plug a reference to the abuse that took place in those schools where tens of thousands of children died. In the words of Monkman, Christianity has fucked indigenous people over the centuries.
So you can see the challenge, many visitors accept what they see and others reject it, refusing to accept that anything negative took place. I enjoy presenting this exhibit because it attracts comments and reflection and is an opportunity to learn.
The exhibit continues until September 15, and will then travel to other parts of Canada.