The musky scent produced by the anal gland of the Canadian beaver is used in the most opulent perfumes, from Chanel to Givenchy, and is approved as a ‘natural flavour’ additive for foods and cigarettes by the US Food and Drug Administration. In Kent Monkman’s life-size diorama, Scent of a Beaver (2016), the Cree artist’s gender-bending alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle appears on a swing in a beaver-trimmed gown. Invoking Fragonard, she sits with her hair piled rococo-high as the British colonial general James Wolfe and the French Marquis de Montcalm pant in the flowers below. These two men went to war over indigenous land, but in Monkman’s rendition it is Miss Chief they desire. The twist is that all three figures have the same face, Monkman’s own: an ode, the artist says, to the mannequins of indigenous bodies at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which are not only grouped in with animals but which all share the same stereotyped features.
With ‘Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience’ at the McCord Museum in Montreal, Monkman chronicles the history of Canada from Miss Chief’s perspective, opening with the lure of the beaver. Massacre of the Innocents (2015), after the 17th-century biblical scene by Peter Paul Rubens, is a large romantic landscape painting interrupted by thirteen white settlers slaughtering beavers. The myth of terra nullius is replaced by a scene of murder by rifle, machete and hell-bent bare hands. The pink flesh of Rubens’s innocents is replaced by beaver fur, or ‘soft gold’ as it was known in the 18th century. With irreverent humor, Monkman appropriates European aesthetic traditions to upend the hubris and horrors of colonization.
When next we see Miss Chief, her admirers have grown in number. Monkman’s painting The Daddies (2016) faces off with Canadian state painter Robert Harris’s Fathers of the Confederation, which depicts 37 white men meeting in 1864 to establish a singular system of governance over ‘Canadian’ land. Miss Chief sits on a Hudson Bay blanket wearing nothing but red-bottomed Louboutins – or, as rapper Cardi B calls them, ‘bloody shoes.’ The Daddies (2016) gets the last laugh in a revisionist scene that doesn’t flinch at history’s obscenities.
Miss Chief and her ruthless sense of humour are notably absent from the heart of the exhibition. A light shines on The Scream (2016), a painting of indigenous children being forcibly removed from their families by police and Catholic clergy. The piece testifies to the Canadian government’s systematic effort to exterminate indigenous peoples, languages and cultures, and in particular the 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children who were forced to attend residential schools. Flanking the painting are empty cradleboards, alongside a combination of grey ‘ghost boards’ and white chalk outlines where more boards should be. The displaced and missing are invoked by this memorial inscribed on the walls of the museum, what Monkman calls a ‘colonial art space.’
At every turn, ‘Shame and Prejudice’ points to historical traumas which haunt our present. The show closes with a series of ambitious, large-scale paintings depicting scenes of indigenous resurgence: in Seeing Red (2014), for instance, a herd of buffalo have wandered into Winnipeg, where a telephone pole has been carved as a totem, a car has been set on fire, and an angel circles the sky like a vulture. Miss Chief, dressed to kill in a matador’s traje de luces, draws a Hudson Bay blanket to lure a bull, rendered in the cubist style of Picasso. Monkman’s non-binary indigenous alter-ego has vanquished art historical machismo and put the museum (or ‘colonial art space’) on notice.
Main Image: Kent Monkman, The Daddies, 2016, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy: Musée McCord, Montreal
First published in Issue 203