Overturning colonized gender binaries: indigenous artist Kent Monkman
Creator: Brendon Thorne, copyright 2010
In honor of National Native American Heritage Month, I'll be posting highlights of individuals who're shining light on indigenous understandings of gender, and the bias and discrimination about non-binary identity introduced by Christian colonization. The entries come from a not-yet-published book titled Queeroes and Trans Champs: 15 Extraordinary People From Around the World Who Show That Authenticity Is Power.
“It’s important for indigenous people and everyone, to understand that indigenous had a respect and a place for two-spirited people.”
Canadian artist Kent Monkman identifies as queer and two-spirit, an indigenous concept describing people who are non-binary in gender or sexuality. He uses painting, installation pieces, and performance art to address the wrongs committed against Native American peoples.
Kent knew he would be an artist from a very early age. He was the youngest of four children. His parents were missionaries on the Shamattawa First Nation reserve in Northern Manitoba, Canada for several years, living in a small cabin and suffering from the cold. The person who was most influential in Kent’s life was his great-grandmother Caroline Everette, who died when he was 10. Caroline was from the Cree Nation, and spoke little English. While she didn’t tell many stories about the hardships of her people, his later research uncovered the suffering of his ancestors inflicted by treaties and government programs. Family members were forced to relocate three times, and Caroline’s daughter (Kent’s grandmother) was taken away from her family and forced to go to a residential school.
As Kent grew into a teenager, he realized he was attracted to both girls and boys. Because of his family’s religious devotion, Kent kept his bisexual nature under wraps, and stuck to dating women until he reached his thirties.
The shock of what he found while researching his ancestors’ plight provided the foundation for his creative focus. He was driven to create commentaries not only on colonial violence against Native Americans generally, but also on the repression of two-spirit gender and sexuality. He started out doing abstract painting, but found that abstracted versions of the human beings who were repressed didn’t convey truths clearly enough.
His work includes elements of sexuality and gender in order to address the problems of power. Given his drive to create art about history, Kent’s paintings are frequently styled after historical works. Many have the feel of “Old Masters”, but some contain deconstructed, flat female figures in the style of Picasso. But even these have meaning; Kent reports that these figures represent the violence done against the feminine spirit.
Monkman’s art attempts to reverse the theft of culture from Canada’s First Nation people by appropriating the European-American art of the period and modifying it in ways that turn heads and furrow brows. “The histories that have been painted about North America have largely excluded the real histories of indigenous people here, and I wanted to authorize into art history these very important events that happened to indigenous people, that are missing from the canon of art history,” he says.
One of Kent’s explorations of this era of art resulted in the creation of a character called “Miss Chief” who’s become an important feature of his art, appearing repeatedly in his work. “She's a trickster in that she rampages through art history, upending the tables of power and the dynamics of power, and because she’s an artistic persona she’s changing the narratives.” Kent says. “I also wanted a character that could represent indigenous sexuality and gender roles, which of course is different than the European binary of male and female.” In every depiction, Miss Chief looks a lot like the artist himself. Initially she was simply a character in paint and sculpture, but she came to life when Kent began developing performance pieces in which he presents himself as the character. Just like in the paintings, Miss Chief wears red-bottomed stilettoes or bright pink platform shoes, giant feather headdresses, and complicated lingerie. “Being Miss Chief is very liberating,” Kent says. “There’s a side of me that’s the really serious artist who works hard in my practice. Miss Chief brings a lot of humor to the practice, she brings a lot of fun.”
Inspired by the dioramas he saw in museums as a child, Kent also creates three-dimensional installations which break the form. In an installation called The Rise and Fall of Civilization, Miss Chief stands on a cliff between two lifelike buffalo with her hand extended, but that’s where the resemblance to the typical museum diorama ends. This piece explodes out into the gallery space, with a Cubist buffalo frozen in mid-air, leaping off the cliff to join a small heard of abstract metal buffalo which Kent has managed to convey as running.
Kent wants people to take a profound truth away from his work: “I wanted to be able to create paintings that would enter art history, and educate and move people, not just in the present, but a hundred and fifty years from now, and I feel like that language of painting has the ability to transcend time, because it’s not trendy, it’s classic, and it will endure,” he says. He wants to take back the traditional understanding of self which was trampled. “Indigenous people had a place for the third gender; men who could live as women, women who could live as men. The contemporary term is two-spirited, but it really means people of different sexualities or people who live in the other gender,” Kent says. “The main message is that it’s okay to be who you are, and that this existed in our traditional cultures,” he continues. “It’s important for indigenous people and everyone, to understand that indigenous had a respect and a place for two-spirited people.”
“Our voices need to be heard,” Kent says. “Being silent, or stepping out, was not really an option for me. I felt it was a very important moment to take some of the spotlight and to address the many issues and histories that have largely been kept quiet.”