ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Scroll quickly enough past a photograph of Kent Monkman’s new installation, “Scent of a Beaver,” at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, and you might mistake it for a painting. You don’t have to be an art historian to recognize the aesthetic, but those steeped in the canon of European classical painting might readily identify Monkman’s riff on “The Swing” (c. 1767), a Rococo masterpiece by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
In Monkman’s installation, which falls somewhere between a tableau vivant and the kind of scene you might find inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, the young lady who is the central figure of “The Swing” is replaced by the artist’s alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. She is a solemn, high-cheekboned, female iteration of Monkman’s own image, with dark hair that’s been piled in a Rococo-style wig appointed with First Nations ornamentation, a ruffled and embroidered dress trimmed in fur, and moccasin-clad feet kicking forward to match the action of the swing. This character, variously outfitted, recurs within Monkman’s body of performance, video, and static installations. Her presence contributes a genderqueer element that honors the non-binary identities that are an accepted mode of existence within some indigenous traditions, and acts as a vehicle through which Monkman explores issues of cultural identity, colonialism, and the process of rebuilding personal mythology in the face of whitewashed history.
“Miss Chief first appeared in my paintings as a way to respond to and challenge the authority of artists who gave shape to the representations of indigenous peoples that continue to be upheld, not just in our museums but also in contemporary culture,” says Monkman, in an email interview densely packed with thoughtful analyses of art history, cultural conflict, and the ravages of Modernism as a form of intellectual colonialism of indigenous peoples. “The strongly held convictions of artists like George Catlin and Edward Curtis, who believed that indigenous people were vanishing forever, if they did not exist authentically in their pre-contact state, continue to reverberate in currently held perceptions of indigenous peoples by dominant society. … My strategy with Miss Chief was to lure people in with beauty to deliver a more potent message about the dark episodes of history, but ultimately she espouses the powerful spirit of indigenous resilience.”
In this particular iteration, Miss Chief rocks back and forth on an animatronic swing, attended to on either side by men in respectively blue and red frock coats; they represent the colonial powers of France and England, which, at the time of Fragonard’s painting, were engaged, to use Monkman’s phrase, “in this menage a trois of New France: indigenous, English and French.” Monkman is a Canadian artist of Irish-Cree heritage, and this piece effectively functions as a lesson in both the marginalized indigenous perspective and a North American history that’s often told without including Canada. Institute for the Humanities curator Amanda Krugliak has, as always, made a bold choice in bringing this work to an institute of higher learning in the United States, where the complexities of early colonialism in the Americas are rarely given consideration outside of a narrative that focuses on the triumphant acquisition of territories through purchase and conquer. “Not yet sidelined by the treaties of the 19th century that removed their independence, the strategic allegiances of competing indigenous nations were wooed by the French and English,” says Monkman. “The Rococo opulence of ‘The Swing’ suited the period of the fur trade, when the beaver was central to the trade between Europeans and indigenous peoples (including the poor creatures’ scent glands castoreum, used for making perfume).” Hence the title of the installation, which also contains a bawdy double-entendre (and presumably the fur trim lining Miss Chief’s garment is beaver, or faux beaver, as well).
Though the stakes are high and Monkman is deadly serious in the contemplation of his themes, it must be noted that “Scent of a Beaver,” like much of his work, cleverly and playfully makes use of kitsch. The mannequins (especially Miss Chief, in a relatively toned-down outfit, for her) and elaborate fake flora make for an inviting display, something that draws the viewer in, only to hit them with the impact of fraught racial power dynamics. We do not expect challenging content from a window display or an animatronic Disney ride — Monkman’s medium here invites casual engagement and, once that is achieved, twists the knife.
Accompanying the installation is a roughly four-minute video, “The Transfiguration,” wherein Miss Chief disembarks from her limo amid a picturesque, painted Italian villagescape to perform a ceremony over the twisted body of a reclining Picasso nude. As the result of her ministrations, the body releases a spirit in the form of an angel — another one of Monkman’s recurring motifs. “The Modernists such as Picasso deconstructed, with considerable violence, the female nude,” says Monkman “I have been using Picasso’s butchered female nudes to talk about the European assault on the female spirit. Many indigenous cultures are matriarchal and were not respected or understood by patriarchal European societies.”
With “Scent of a Beaver,” the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities continues to uphold a tradition of presenting challenging work in an environment that should very much be one for the contemplatation and questioning of power structures upheld by modern society. Following its deinstallation here, Monkman plans to include it as part of a national tour of his work in Canada, titled Shame and Prejudice, that reflects on a century and a half of indigenous history as Canada marks its 150th birthday since Confederation next year. In deconstructing “The Swing,” Monkman offers an important reminder that sometimes the best way to change the future is to change history.
Kent Monkman’s “Scent of a Beaver” continues at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery (University of Michigan, 202 S Thayer Street, Ann Arbor) through February 26.