Monday, October 12, 2015


Modernism, European Models & The Buffalo Jump

Opening Thursday October 15th, Kent Monkman’s The Rise and Fall of Civilization, a ballroom sized installation at the Gardiner Museum, gives one the sense of walking into a huge diorama and being challenged by the history of Modern Art as it intersects with colonization and the one dimensional flattening of indigenous visual and cultural representation. Recent facebook postings had one astute viewer referring to on aspect of the monumental work as the love child of Julian Schnabel and Pablo Picasso. And yet one might suggest that Schnabel and Picasso could be considered – through the gaze of an historically inclined reversal - the precocious modern/post modern love kiddies of artists like Kent Monkman as he continues to turn art history inside out with his revisionist epic strategies that reveal how indigenous culture has been utilized and modified by non indigenous artists.

During a media preview Monkman spoke briefly of his experience as a young man growing up in Winnipeg and seeing the idealized depictions of indigenous life in the Manitoba Museum - dioramas that still exist today. He expressed his concerns, past and present, regarding the actual circumstances many indigenous people continue to experience, and the ways in which history has distorted this through visual images. Walking out of that museum in Winnipeg, and then seeing first hand what indigenous people were actually dealing with – and continue to deal with - has made a lasting impression on his outlook and his work as a painter, sculptor, and performance artist..

Particular forms of European modernism, in the hands of artists such as Picasso - as a way of seeing the world through non-European cultural forms - have frequently flattened images found within other cultures – extracting originary meaning and holding the modified image up as a problematic representation of the cursed cultural faux category known as ‘originality.’ Picasso’s brand of cubism utilized African masks as a way of delineating his response to human forms, specifically the female nude who frequently sports (in some of Picasso’s paintings) a mask-like face atop a fractured, multi-planed nude body (e.g. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) - providing a viable arena for feminist and race conscious critique. Monkman has attempted to show this fractured movement from one form of representation to another through a simple yet complex four-tiered visual essay of sorts. His crisp, finely delineated installation elegantly fills a large gallery space at the Gardiner and gestures, through its sheer size, yet minimalist placing of each discursive stroke, both the monumental and the miniscule. The room is vast, giving spectators plenty of physical space in which to perceive the grandeur of a huge cliff like structure where a mannequin represents Miss Chief Testickle, Monkman’s ‘drag’ clad performance persona. The cross-dressed two spirited figure stands between two Buffalo about to be herded off the edge of the cliff.  Monkman’s previous appearances as Miss Chief Testickle have included costumes referencing contemporary figures such as Cher in her all white aboriginal influenced ‘costume’ for the song ‘Half Breed.’ Replete with mammoth feathered headdress and form fitting white attire, Monkman entered on a horse in the large atrium area of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM (2007). He proceeded to deliver a performance/lecture, with slides, on the colonization of indigenous cultures through visual representation. These epic performances have placed him at the apex of a brand of entertaining, enlightening and scathing Canadian Performance art as it addresses particular cultural issues. Another Monkman installation, at the Manitoba Museum, re-imagined the relationship between Tonto and the Lone Ranger as a fateful love affair.

A catalogue from 2010, The Triumph of Mischief, chronicles early post millennial exhibits where Monkman’s performance and visual styles meshed into an epic re-telling and re-visualizing of indigenous history and colonization with a decidedly homoerotic gaze (e.g. Artist and Model, 2003, Si je t’aime prends garde à toi, 2007). The homoeroticism in the Gardiner installation exists only insomuch as Miss Chief appears as a glamourous and sexy two-spirited persona. But the European models (e.g. - modernism and Delft-like china) are semi-metaphors, rather than the very physical, buxom, half naked, frequently blonde men that populate some of Monkman’s huge canvases where non-white paramours turn the tables on colonization - and sexy muscle bound white colonizers - in a decidedly carnally inclined manner.

The Gardiner installation focuses on the Buffalo Jump as metaphoric properties toward
the ways in which the practice of herding Buffalo can be likened to particular
movements within art history. And yet, Monkman’s version of the jump also represents
the actual violent decimation of the Buffalo population by European settlers.

The installation moves through a series of tableaus;

1/ a representation of two Buffalo (with Miss Chief standing between them)
atop a cliff where life-like representations of the powerful animals stand firm

2/ one of two still animal figures is mirrored, mid air, as a less life like cubist Buffalo,
being herded into death

3/ and then the landing of the Buffalo is represented by a pile of broken, mostly
white china, placed on the floor just beyond the foot of the cliff. White handlebars and
Blue Delft-like porcelain bicycle seats (reminiscent of; Bull’s Head, bicycle seat and
handlebar, Picasso, 1942) re-fashioned by Monkman as stylized Buffalo Heads are
scattered among the broken china

4/ and finally, rising from this heap of dead fragile whiteness are one dimensional tubular
steel sculptural representations of the Buffalo – a summarizing gesture toward the visual
flattening of ‘borrowed’ images from indigenous art and culture, as well of the full scale
killing of Buffalo herds in the 19th century

Miss Chief Testickle presides over the whole process from above, in an elegant fringed
two-piece bright red costume designed in collaboration with Monkman by Izzy
Camilleri. The drag persona, Monkman suggests, poses a complex question within the
current Gardiner installation.  Is ‘she’ and ‘he’ encouraging this forward movement, or do
‘they’ stand as protector against a problematic progression away from original
indigenous meaning, import, and cultural practice.

The Buffalo Jump, as a complex strategy for hunting, turns in on itself when one
considers the history of destruction incurred by European settlers who took part in the
widespread decimation of the Buffalo - to the extreme detriment of essential hunting
practices. And yet, the playful is always present in Monkman’s work (the tickle
in Testickle)  as it commingles with sharp incisive critiques of colonization.

At the end of an interview in the 2010 publication (The Triumph of Mischief) Miss Chief
Eagle Testickle provides a brief playful response to questions regarding the presence of
the Trickster in Kent Monkman’s complex, skilful, astute, and playfully multi-discsplined

CM: I was wondering, are you a trickster?

MC: Well, I don’t know if I’m a trickster. I have certainly learned a lot from the trickster.

CM: Because tricksters shift shape…

MC: I wish I could shift shape. I’d lose another ten pounds! I’ve learned from the Trickster, though I can’t really say I am a trickster. In my own very small, humble way of trying to achieve a balance I borrow from the trickster spirit, and I think that it helps me to achieve this balance.

CM: I have one final question for you, Miss Chief. How on earth do you ride horses in seven-inch heels?

MC: That’s how I learned of course, I don’t know – some people put spurs on, and I just use my heels!

CM: Any final words, or thoughts?

MC: Well, I am always looking for new models. So if there are any European males out there, please present yourself to me.

CM: Thank you Miss Chief!

Cathy Mattes (CM) and Kent Monkman as Miss Chief (MC)


Ironically, complicated elements culled from the history of colonization have given us museums like the ROM, the Gardiner and the Manitoba Museum – among many - where all of the craft and sensibility of centuries of visual skill and culture can gather - and war and play amongst themselves.

Don’t miss the grandeur of Monkman’s critical and visually stunning critique as it continues to unravel history in glorious multi-disciplinary forms.



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