By Peter Hendra
When he took on the task of curating an exhibit in response to Canada’s sesquicentennial, celebrated Indigenous artist Kent Monkman looked to “fill in the blanks.”
The result was “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience,” which officially opens Thursday at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. It’s an exhibit comprised of artifacts, text and paintings, including Monkman’s “The Scream,” which depicts Indigenous children being spirited away from their mothers by authorities.
“The art history and the history of this country was told through the European settler perspective, so they’re not going to make images of the dark side of that narrative. It doesn’t exist. There are not history paintings that show the removal of children,” the 52-year-old explained over the phone from his Toronto studio.
“It’s one of the darkest chapters of the relationship between European settler cultures and the Indigenous people, and it doesn’t exist in art history. For me, it was essential to look for those blank areas in our collective art history, to fill in those blanks and to bring images forward that honour those experiences and authorize them into art history.”
Monkman will be in Kingston briefly for Thursday’s opening and again on Saturday for a sold-out guided tour and then a free, first-come, first-served public talk. The exhibit will be at the Agnes until April.
Some of his paintings feature a time-travelling trickster called “Miss Chief Eagle Testicle,” who adds an element of humour into the pieces.
“Her evolution has been really fun and interesting,” explained Monkman, who recently signed a book deal to tell his alter ego’s story. “And just having her travel through time and interact with all of these different historical characters … I’ve found her to be really useful and kind of exhilarating and exciting in my work.”
In the piece “The Daddies,” for example, Monkman recreates Robert Harris’s famous portrait of the Fathers of Confederation, but he inserts a naked Miss Chief sitting on a Hudson’s Bay blanket at its centre.
Monkman said he did a lot of research about historical figures, including Sir John A. Macdonald, as he was putting the project together. Some people were “unkind and ruthless in their strategies,” he said, “and John A., I believe, was one of those people.”
“That’s my project as well, to shed light on our leaders and put forward history paintings that really speak truth to those perspectives.”
The edition of “Shame and Prejudice” at the Agnes is the first that had to drop a few items because of limited space, so Monkman had tough choices to make about what to leave out.
“It kills me to not put the whole story out there because that’s how it was planned and designed, but what can you do?” he said.
While his paintings may grab gallerygoers’ eyes, he hopes they will take the time to read as well as look.
“For me, the text really brings all of the visual aspects together,” he said. “I would want everyone to read the didactic panels because that really shapes the narrative and pulls everything together.”
Putting together “Shame and Prejudice” has inspired Monkman to carry on down the same path.
“The more I got into it, the more I realized how much is missing from this canon of our history, and that kind of gave me a purpose in terms of what I wanted to say and what I want my work to be about,” he said.
“So I feel like there’s still an endless well of possible material, and ideas, and subject matter to work from. I’m never bored and excited to move on to the next work, so there’s really no shortage of material and subject matter to work from.”
What: Cree artist Kent Monkman’s “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilienc — which runs at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre until April 8 — will be among the topics of the Canadian artist’s free public talk (first come, first served).
When: Saturday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m. (public talk).
Where: Ellis Hall, 58 University Ave.
For more: agnes/queensu.ca
Image: Kent Monkman, The Scream, 2017, acrylic on canvas. Collection of the Denver Art Museum, Native Arts acquisition fund.