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Installation view of “Welcoming the Newcomers” (2019) for The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People), 2019 (image courtesy of the artist and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Anna-Marie Kellen)

In mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People), Kent Monkman’s commission for the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art now open to the public, the First Nations artist of Cree heritage challenges the narrow vision of Western art history by appropriating its very language. Monkman renders the past injustices and contemporary challenges endured by Indigenous people in the style of academic history painting — a genre whose imposing presence and institutional prestige he simultaneously channels and critiques. Many of the characters in his two 11-by-22-foot canvases borrow the guise, postures, or expressions from protagonists of European and North American works in the Met’s collection, in particular ethnographic and romantic portrayals of Native American subjects by non-Native artists.

Installation view of “Resurgence of the People” (2019) for The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People), 2019 (image courtesy of the artist and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Anna-Marie Kellen)

“Kent really wanted to tackle the images and objects we have on view about the so-called ‘vanishing race,’” Randy Griffey, a curator in the Met’s department of modern and contemporary art, told Hyperallergic. Viewers are encouraged to experience Monkman’s source material firsthand, aided by didactic wall labels that indicate the cited works’ locations in the museum galleries, but Griffey emphasized that the two paintings stand on their own. “Despite all the art historical references, Kent wants his work to be as accessible as possible,” he said, noting that the Great Hall is located at the museum’s entrance and does not require an admission fee to visit. “The reason he’s adhered to a figurative style is a commitment to communication.”

Kent Monkman, “Welcoming The Newcomers” (2019), acrylic on canvas (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Joseph Hartman)

The first painting in the diptych “Welcoming The Newcomers” (2019) recreates early encounters between First Peoples and colonial settlers. Some locals pull shipwrecked European explorers onto the rocky shores in a gesture of altruism; others draw weapons in defense of their lands. Monkman’s nonbinary alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, who emerges in both works as a symbol of the fluid gender identities embraced by the Cree, extends their muscular arms toward three men in the ocean. One of them is a figure wearing an intricate turban reminiscent of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “Bashi-Bazouk” (1868-69), an oil on canvas work in the Met collection titled after the Turkish name for mercenary soldiers fighting for the Ottoman Empire. The French artist has been heavily criticized for his exoticizing and orientalizing interpretations of the Near East.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, “Bashi-Bazouk” (1868–69), oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x 26 in. Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2008 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A reclining woman visible amidst the tangle of bodies on land, hand clutching her abdomen, is modeled after Thomas Crawford’s sculpture “Mexican Girl Dying” (1846; carved 1848) on view in the American Wing. Inspired by historian William H. Prescott’s “History of the Conquest of Mexico,” which advanced the theory that Spanish colonizers of Mexico sought to convert Native communities to Christianity, the work nevertheless appeased Western viewers by depicting the young woman with a cross, suggesting her eventual acceptance of and adherence to the imposed religion.

Thomas Crawford, “Mexican Girl Dying” (1846; carved 1848), marble, 20 1/4 x 54 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Annette W. W. Hicks-Lord, 1896 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the second gargantuan canvas, “Resurgence of the People” (2019), Monkman imagines the contemporary aftermath of colonization. The composition references Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851). The boat in the foreground in Monkman’s version, however, roils in the high tides exacerbated by climate change, invoking images of migrant vessels. A band of white, armed figures from settler nations looms threateningly in the background. 

Kent Monkman, “Resurgence of the People” (2019), acrylic on canvas (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Joseph Hartman)

Two women holding a baby evoke the Indigenous parents in Eugène Delacroix’s painting “The Natchez” (1823-24 and 1835), whose child was born during their escape from French forces massacring the Natchez people in the 1730s. Griffey notes that the work is quoted in both “Welcoming the Newcomers” and “Resurgence of the People,” but in the latter, Monkman reinterprets the man and woman painted by Delacroix as a lesbian couple.

Eugène Delacroix, The Natchez (1823–24 and 1835), oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 46 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Gifts of George N. and Helen M. Richard and Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh and Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer, by exchange, 1989 (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“My people are heroes deserving of great history paintings,” declared Monkman during a recent performance at the Met in which his alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, delivered a lecture titled “A True and Exact Account of the History of North America.” The power of Monkman’s paintings lies in their specificity: rather than advancing a sweeping statement against reductive representations of Indigenous people in Western art history, he draws from its canon pointedly and deliberately to offer a productive counter-narrative.  The new commission at the Met suggests the museum’s willingness to self-reflect and consider its own collection with a critical eye, and represents an acknowledgment of institutions’ complicity in perpetuating colonial discourses, in art and beyond. 

The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, New York, NY) through April 9, 2020.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

6 replies on “Kent Monkman Introduces Candid Indigenous Narratives to the Metropolitan Museum’s Great Hall”

  1. I’m disappointed in these large paintings.I’ve admired Kent Monkman’s work for over 20 years, for the unique personal statement when he made his paintings himself. He was one of the great painters of our time. Now that he hires other artists to paint his images, even though he draws the images and they’re projected on the canvas so the image follow his intentions, they look like illustrations rather than the brilliant art he made in the past. Jeff Koons is more successful because he removes the human touch from his work, creating a mechanical art that better accepts the mechanical production of having others paint the work.

    Monkman’s early ideas were unexpectedly creative. He painted professionally accurate versions of 17th century and 18th century Canadian paintings, but with a twist of adding gay sex between cowboys and Indians. Or he’d do a traditional 18th century painting but put First Nations people in place of the European dignitaries we expect from the well-known original work. Still, his art depends not only on an idea, but on Monkman’s genius as expressed in the body language of his personal touch, so obviously problems arise once you hire others to do the touch.

    In 1617, Sir Dudley Carleton protested to Rubens that paintings offered to him as by the hand of the artist himself were in fact largely the work of his studio. Rubens was quick to replace them with works he could vouch for as being entirely his own — it would not do to acquire a reputation for passing off inferior work as original. In 1652, Peter van Halen, painter and Master of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp purchased Brueghel’s painting Cattle Market for 204 guilders. On closer examination, Van Halen decided it was not an original but a copy. After three years of lawsuits, van Halen managed to establish that the painting was indeed a studio copy made by Brueghel’s assistants and was awarded damages.

    It is only now we realize Duchamp was wrong; we cannot make art primarily intellectual because the intellect is a left brain function while creativity, subtlety and complexity are right brain functions. That’s why afterwards Duchamp could paint no more.

    For that same reason, we can’t have other people execute our ideas in images to create art, because they lack the artist’s unique touch, the expression of the non-verbal rendered as body language. The magic of art is a combination of the conceptual and the ineffable, while just the concept alone… for those with sensibility it’s a yawn. The image is near identical when done by the master or when done by assistants, except for a subtle magic that touches us deeply… that’s missing.

  2. Utter kitsch. Its sheer grandiosity cancels any other reading we might have and the alter-ego nonbinary vanity in high heels is ridiculous.

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