Senator Murray Sinclair is backing Winnipeg-raised Cree artist Kent Monkman after the painter’s latest provocative work sparked a backlash on social media.
Hanky Panky, which Monkman revealed on May 16 on Instagram and Facebook, suggests the sexual assault of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and an audience of Indigenous women laughing at the scene.
Monkman, one of Canada’s most successful contemporary artists who received some of his first lessons at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, returned to social media on May 18 to address the outrage.
"I have been listening and learning from your feedback. I deeply regret any harm that was caused by the work. I acknowledge that the elements I had included to indicate consent are not prominent enough, and I see now how the painting could appear," he wrote.
Sinclair, who was the chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, defended Monkman on Facebook Tuesday, calling the painting "a monumental testament to the treatment of Indigenous women and the public’s lack of caring."
"He has managed to get people worked up over the obscenity of the content, in startling contrast to the intellectual calmness with which people look upon how Indigenous women were treated. I wish people were as shocked and angered at that visual as they are at Monkman’s portrayal of it," Sinclair wrote.
Hanky Panky is set in a lodge. On a small stage, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a two-spirit trickster who appears in many of Monkman’s paintings and is often described as his alter ego, stands behind a young man, who resembles Trudeau. The man is on his hands and knees and is restrained by two Indigenous women. His pants are pulled down and Miss Chief holds a red hand aloft.
Among the people on the side of the stage are resemblances of former prime ministers Sir John A. Macdonald and Stephen Harper. Off the stage is an RCMP officer lying face down, also with his pants down.
Surrounding the stage is an audience of Indigenous women, all of whom are laughing at the scene.
Many of the posts on Twitter objected to the painting, saying they were disturbed by its suggestion of sexual assault as retribution and were offended that Indigenous women would be portrayed as cheering on such a scene.
Monkman explained his work in the original Facebook post. He says it highlights problems Indigenous people in Canada have faced for decades, such as their disproportionate incarceration and the victimization of Indigenous women and children.
"This is not a punishment, but rather a consensual act that Miss Chief willingly delivers," Monkman wrote. "This image employs a sense of humour drawn from Cree storytelling. I chose the title Hanky Panky to reflect on the playful nature of Miss Chief’s character, the exuberant laughter of the Indigenous women, and the trickery and deceit of each successive colonial government since Canadian Confederation."
The painting, which can be seen at facebook.com/kentmonkmanstudio, is similar in style to Monkman’s Canada 150 exhibition Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, which has been touring Canada since 2017 and was on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from September 2019 to February 2020.
In that exhibition, Monkman paints in the style of Renaissance masters but often uses scenes from Indigenous history in North America instead of European settings to show the exploitation and violence perpetrated against First Nations people.
Arts and Life Editor
Alan Small was named the editor of the Free Press Arts and Life section in January 2013 after almost 15 years at the paper in a variety of editing roles.