The art of breaking down boundaries
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013
Updated: Sunday, March 3, 2013 19:03
Past and present, man and woman, straight and gay: these are dichotomies that are all too familiar. We integrate them into our worldviews unthinkingly and never second-guess them.
Kent Monkman, an internationally acclaimed Canadian artist, explores these binaries through his artwork and questions hastily placed labels with a provocative imagination.
Monkman gave a lecture about his work last Thursday evening at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center as part of the Leslie-Lohman Queer Art Lecture Series. His work has been reviewed by the likes of The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe and has been exhibited extensively in Canada, the United States and Europe.
Monkman, who is of Native Canadian and European descent, embodies a dichotomy himself.
Working in mediums ranging from painting to performance art, Monkman focused exclusively on the contrast between aboriginals and Europeans through the lens of their cultures and time periods. He also added homoerotic imagery to create multi-layered pieces that are simultaneously striking, humorous and stunning.
In his paintings, Monkman created sublime and larger-than-life landscapes reminiscent of 19th-century colonial era wilderness paintings. Monkman then inserts diminutive scenes of natives penetrating and dominating European pioneers in explicit erotic imagery, a stark reversal and sexualization of the traditional European-dominating-native images.
Jonathan D. Katz, director of the UB visual studies doctoral program and curator of the lecture series, has written about and worked with Monkman in the past. Katz admires Monkman’s portrayal of the role reversal between the natives and Europeans.
“[Monkman] believes in revolution,” Katz said. “In the sense of making the top the bottom and the bottom the top. That kind of play back and forth is one of the central themes of his work.”
In addition to painting, Monkman is well versed in installation art and engages in performance art and film.
These disparate and diverse mediums are unified by the universal representation of Monkman’s alter ego: an extravagant drag diva clad in a pink dress, headdress and high heels.
Her name is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.
Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a recurring character in Monkman’s work, first appeared in his paintings. Monkman was inspired by the mixed gender role of the berdache (a man assuming the female’s role) in First Nations cultures, so he fashioned a humorous, gender-bending persona that symbolizes an exploration of gender and sexuality.
Miss Chief is often depicted in Monkman’s paintings seducing men with her androgynous appeal – outclassing Europeans in dogsledding with a pink-clad dog team or serving as a fashion icon wearing her Louis Vuitton high heels, arrow quiver and accessories.
“Louis Vuitton is her brand,” Monkman said in his lecture about his alter ego. A warm laugh from the audience followed.
But Miss Chief doesn’t only exist on the canvas; she’s real.
Monkman dresses up and performs as his chic and fashionable character. Miss Chief has graced audiences from England to Washington, D.C. to Toronto.
Lawrence Brose, an adjunct instructor in the Department of Visual Studies, finds Monkman’s ability to bring his painted character to life fascinating, especially as a comment on sexuality.
“I’ve never seen a native [artist] actually talk about [sexuality] and embrace it, and in a sense, embody it,” Brose said. “I think that’s what is really fantastic about what Kent is doing. He’s not afraid to embrace the sexuality of it all.”
Monkman screened a short clip from one of his films featuring Miss Chief. The film, Group of Seven Inches,presented an elegant Miss Chief dressed in white on horseback.
“She normally rides bareback,” a narrator declares in the film. “But she’s grown accustomed to European brand saddles.”
In the film, Miss Chief exerted her power over two European males by defeating them in archery. The rest of the film depicted Miss Chief’s domination of the two males by stripping them and having her way with them.