Kent Monkman paints controversial, yet timely art

Photo by Marco Pedri

When you are first taking in one of Kent Monkman’s paintings, a thousand things race through your mind.

The Cree-Irish artist, hailing from Manitoba, tackles a plethora of themes and smoothly blends them, creating a rather polarizing image.

This oftentimes leaves the viewer feeling both overwhelmed and impacted, inevitably craving more of his work.

The sentiment expressed by onlookers was no different as he presented a number of his latest installments at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (KWAG) this past Friday; Monkman was greeted by a completely packed room. Though the main presentation area held only a small fraction of the audience, a live feed of the talk was streamed into the room adjacent — which was also at capacity.

The audience sat captivated as Monkman took them through a history of his works, as well as their inspirations. Not unlike most of his paintings, the presentation had a strong narrative that described the artist’s growth from humble beginnings to success, without artistic compromise.

Monkman’s vision is strong throughout each of his paintings and he is not afraid to use humour or satire to make a point. In fact, a number of his works are very blunt and humorous parodies of classically accepted pieces. A recurring theme throughout Monkman’s work is his alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, placed in various historical narratives, often to both humorous and mesmerizing effect.

The creation of this alter-ego, central to a number of his works, was a sort of reaction to artists like John Mix Stanley and George Catlin, who often painted themselves into their settings as ‘rugged mountain guys’ — a way of showing off.

“I thought, an artistic persona that can live inside my work and basically be the artist painting her subjects,” Monkman said. “I immediately thought of We’Wha, this very well-known Zuni, two-spirited personality who represented her tribe; this was the male who identified as female.”

“I knew that I wanted to talk about sexuality … to address homophobia in Indigenous communities and also more widely … so I created Miss Chief [Eagle Testickle] as this idea of ‘the ego and the artist,’” he said.

One of Monkman’s latest instalments, The Four Continents, which is currently on display at the KWAG, consists of a series of paintings that were completed from 2012-16. The exhibition is a direct response to Tiepolo’s frescoes in which the four continents are personified. The series is centred around a day in the life of Greek god, Apollo.

Monkman uses this allegorical instalment to address a number of different problems across its four parts, each representing a specific continent and its respective cultural/social issues. The paintings, titled Miss America, Miss Asia, Miss Africa and Miss Europe, address issues of sexuality, colonialism, indulgence, war and much more.

With that being said, description on its own does the art absolutely zero justice; go and check out The Four Continents now at the KWAG where they will be on display until Mar. 12.

I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

This article was edited on Jan. 25. 

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