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Kent Monkman’s voice is crisp and clockwork-measured over the phone from his country studio in Prince Edward County, two hours east of Toronto along Lake Ontario’s verdant shore. He’s told his story so many times.
So now, the celebrated artist calmly repeats it, almost by rote: growing up in 1970s Winnipeg. Parents who always encouraged him to draw. His first steps as a professional artist, doing storyboard illustrations for commercial projects.
Then there is the time of emergence. When he studied the works of George Catlin and Paul Kane, white 19th century painters who filtered Indigenous life through a colonial gaze, and saw truths gone missing, voices erased.
In time, Monkman learned how to wrest control of those old visual tropes, and return them to Indigenous people. Through his figures, survivors of colonization stare back at settlers: a mythology disrupted, a gaze sharply returned.
So this story, then, is the tale of how a Cree kid painted a path, from Winnipeg to the world.
At 52, Monkman has ascended Canada’s contemporary art mountain. His work hangs in the National Gallery. His paintings, vast canvases that send colonial fairy tales tumbling, are raised to challenge the self-image of a country.
On that end, his razor-sharp response to Canada 150 — a wrenching exhibition called Shame & Prejudice: A Story of Resilience — is in the midst of a three-year national tour. (It will show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2019.)
Now, Monkman stands on the cusp of global acclamation. He’s made more trips to Europe, lately. This summer, one of his pieces was chosen for a Parisian diorama exhibition, and he’s planning another show in France next year.
Here arises a new challenge, a new set of gatekeepers, a new set of barriers to assail.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the visual references that unlock Monkman’s work are more distant. The reception his work gets is different, and as he considers the question of why, his voice quickens and grows more urgent.
"Europeans have no concept of Indigenous people," he says with palpable frustration. "When it comes to the contemporary art world, and some of the issues I raise in my work, they don’t even have a point of entry with that.
"They don’t know what colonization really means," he adds. "They understand in a broad abstract sense, but some of these people have never been to North America, much less the North End of Winnipeg, so they just have no idea."
For Monkman, who has always had to be as much an educator as a painter — not by choice, he notes, but as consequence of confronting colonial narratives — it’s demoralizing. It means there is still so much left to do.
"It’s exhausting," he says. "Because not only do we have to do the work, we have to bring people to just the entry level of understanding some of the basic stuff of what they need to know to start understanding the work."
But time rolls on, the story changes, and Monkman sees new hope in contemporary art spaces. He’s seen it in Canada, where more galleries — the WAG included — have attracted a spirited vanguard of Indigenous curators.
Consider his appearance at the WAG Sunday afternoon, where he’ll show a collection of his short films. The visit fits in with the gallery’s landmark exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art, Insurgence / Resurgence, which runs until spring.
It’s a stunning show comprised of 29 artists and 12 new commissions, working in all mediums. It is the largest exhibition of contemporary Indigenous artists in the WAG’s history, and Monkman is pleased to hear it.
"All I can say is, it’s about time," he says. "I’ve been waiting for something like this, growing up in Winnipeg and seeing how Indigenous people in the art scene were ostracized.
"Even 20 years ago, you’d go to a Plug In (Institute of Contemporary Art Gallery) opening, and no one would be caught dead at an Urban Shaman (Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery)opening."
He knows how this visibility matters. Monkman all but grew up at the WAG; as a kid, he went there for Saturday art classes. But it wasn’t until his 20s that he had one of his most formative encounters with modern Indigenous art.
It was at a WAG exhibition of works by Robert Houle, an Anishinaabe artist and member of Sandy Bay First Nation. (Houle’s work remains on display at the gallery.) Monkman was fascinated by the pieces and their presentation.
"I was just in awe of it," he says. "(Houle) wasn’t in the ethnology wing. He was a contemporary artist making modern paintings, and that was really inspirational to me."
By then, he was already deep into his own artistic journey.
He was born in Ontario to Everet Monkman, a member of Fisher River First Nation, and Rilla Unger, who is Anglo-Irish. The family lived briefly up north, in Shamattawa, before moving to Winnipeg when he was young.
As a kid, Monkman says, the family "didn’t have a lot of money," or many toys, either. He amused himself with pencil crayons, drawing entire stories in a single frame. It was youthful fancy: raging pirate battles at sea, that sort of thing.
He became transfixed by books in the family’s collection. One, he remembers, was a 1950s photo book featuring photos of horses, images of horses through art history. It was called, he recalls, simply Horses.
"That became almost an obsession, these paintings and photos of horses," he says. "I still have that book."
It’s not so hard to trace the roots of Monkman’s current work back to those early drawings.
Scrawled pirate battles would give way to monumental clashes between First Nations and settlers, set on boundless landscapes taken from old masters. Horses now are ridden by his gender-bending avatar, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.
And growing up in Winnipeg, too, gave Monkman a view onto the wreckage of time.
He was connected to his heritage, especially through his great-grandmother, who lived for a century and spoke Cree. But he lived much of his youth in River Heights, and was one of the few Indigenous teens at Kelvin High School.
The gaps between those worlds left an impression. One of the most vivid arrived on a school field trip to the then-new Manitoba Museum, where he saw the visceral contradictions between the dioramas within, and real lives without.
Inside, painted mannequins of First Nation people frozen in buckskin and time. Outside, the fallout of colonization. A Main Street strip collaged by Indigenous suffering, wrought by residential schools, enforced poverty and dislocation.
He has told that story many times before. It was, he says, the most "visceral and palpable" memory of his youth in Winnipeg. But there was also the look of the place, the "rugged and raw" North End streets and old, peeling paint.
So when he turned his vision to urban settings in 2014, he turned not to Toronto, where he’s spent most of his adult life, but to Winnipeg. The textures of the city, the distinctive visual language of its core, informed an entire series.
One of the paintings in that series hangs in the WAG’s entry gallery. It is a tense scene, dramatic, presented unframed on the beige Tyndall stone wall. When visitors pass through, they tilt their heads towards it and pause.
This is what they see: a street, slightly battered. An old house with peeling white siding. Indigenous men attend to a fallen female figure, purse strewn beside her, body flattened into Picassoid cubes. A black car belches exhaust.
In the three years since Monkman debuted the painting, Death of the Female, the work — along with others in the series, called The Urban Res — has travelled around the world. Arts media described it in studied, cultivated terms.
"Displacement." "Compression." "Pictorial Space."
When Monkman opened his first New York solo show, art critic Hrag Vartanian wrote that The Urban Res exhibition "aggressively questions the language of modernism and its flaws."
"The paintings also reveal characters who feel trapped in cycles of violence and alienation," Vartanian continued. "The artist doesn’t liberate these characters, but tells their story through allegory and disruption."
There was, Vartanian noted, one thing pointedly missing from the paintings — at least, in the critic’s own estimation. "What is absent from these works," he wrote, "is a sense of home, or a place that feels safe from the outside world."
On this, a Winnipegger might pause. To someone from the city, even one who has never been to the painting’s pictured corner of Chambers Street and Alexander Avenue, the image is familiar, felt in the blood and the bones.
Right away, a Winnipegger knows: for all its pain, all its harm, the scene that Monkman has captured is home.
It’s home in a literal sense. We can go there, to the spot; the dented chain-link fence that surrounds the house is true to life. But it’s also recognizable in a more instinctual way. The way that some don’t want to see, and others can’t escape.
"Places like Winnipeg were Indigenous gathering places, or trading places, and those are as much Indian land as much as any other part of the continent was," he says of that series. "It was a way to kind of stimulate memory, because there’s been so much erasure through this period of modernity, in terms of how we think about history, or about Indigenous ownership and entitlement to land.
"That period of modernity was very effective at creating a deliberate amnesia about the past."
As rooted as that series is, Monkman’s life now is movement. He returns to Winnipeg a few times a year — his mother and siblings live here — but much of the time he is a man in transit, balancing an increasingly ravenous schedule.
For starters, there’s the travel. About three times a month, he’s on the road, jetting to speaking gigs in Colorado or Michigan or New York. He has an art dealer in Santa Fe, N.M., so he’s been down there more often lately.
Four days a week, when he’s home, he is at his country studio in Prince Edward County. The other three he spends at his Toronto studio, which buzzes with creation. He has a whole team behind him, including up to eight assistants.
That crew includes painters, sculptors, a social media expert. They toil away on iPads and canvases, starting paintings and taking digital photos of models. It’s a place of nearly constant production, a wellspring of creation.
"Someone asked me the other day, ‘Isn’t it strange to have other people working on your paintings?’" he says. "It’s forced me to learn what exactly I am doing. If I can understand what I am doing, I can dissect it to someone else."
So, over the years, he’s learned to teach them. "This is the brush to use for this figure." "This is how you load the brush with paint." "This is how to stroke the paint on the canvas in a way that’s just-so, or at least just so Kent Monkman."
Today, it’s that process that most excites him. There was a time, he says, where he had a lot of ideas, but his ability to keep up with the ideas constantly lagged. He developed stress injuries from painting up to 18 hours a day.
Now his strained shoulder has healed, even as his studio develops work at a ferocious pace.
"My studio just has this momentum," he says. "We’re able to be very prolific, and to really refine a vision that we’ve been working towards for many years... that’s really exciting, and rewarding."
This is the life of Monkman, now: Winnipeg-raised, Toronto-glazed, dashing around the world and pushing open doors. But artists need time to themselves, too, and as his star has risen, the demands on his time have as well.
So, how does he manage? "I hope this doesn’t sound obnoxious," he says. "But the only way I could really start to get a balance was just to raise my speaking fee. If I did every speaking request, I would never get any work done."
It doesn’t sound obnoxious, or at least it shouldn’t, because the ecology of professional creation depends on this process: when artists who can command higher fees move up, it opens space for the new generation.
Monkman has moved up, and is still moving, and this is important. Young Indigenous artists write to tell him what it meant to see his work on a gallery’s walls.
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On the cusp of a return visit to Winnipeg, where he grew up, artist Kent Monkman reflects on the artistic landscape that has shaped his ascendant career.
On the slow sea change of curation:
I often talk about the institutions in the States being a generation behind, because they are really lacking in having Indigenous curators in their museum on the level that we do here in Canada.
This is the area we see change is really happening. We’re seeing a big shift, and it’s a result of having Indigenous curators. You can’t constantly have non-Indigenous people curating Indigeous art, and feel the change is significant.
On how curation makes the difference:
This is the kind of thing that every Indigenous artist has been faced with: this uphill, kind of slogging it through the gatekeepers, through all these barriers to get to this point.
When I go to the States and see they’re still 25 years behind, it’s depressing and demoralizing, because you realize that these last 25 years have to be relived again to get things moving.
There’s no mainstream national gallery in the United States that has done anything like (the WAG’s Insurgence / Resurgence exhibition)... It’s still another 25 years of work in the trenches, trying to shift the museums themselves.
On why the United States is lagging behind Canada:
Canada has its foundational myths. They have their foundational myths. Their foundational myths are the cowboys came, the Indians were the terrorists, and they just had to wipe them out and remove them.
And it’s sad, there’s this noble race that’s no longer relevant. They romanticized them through the Westerns, and that became part of their story. That’s the story of America.
On his own legacy, as a groundbreaking contemporary artist:
If I can facilitate the path or the journey for the younger generation, absolutely. I would be happy to know that I’ve made a little dent in that, and made it slightly easier for somebody coming up behind me.
The same things were done by the artists who went ahead of me, who... worked very hard to shift the institutions, the Canadian institutions a generation before me. It’s encouraging that it’s shifting, but we still have a long way to go.
On some of his earliest fans, growing up in Winnipeg:
My high school drafting teacher (at Kelvin) added me to Facebook. He let me do commercial art, as it was called then, in his drafting class, and that was a big encouragement for me.
He was a big part of why I decided to go and study illustration, because I knew I could go and support myself if I had a practical application to my skills. That was Mr. Wiebe... I also had Mr. Kramer, my art teacher.
The two of them were very supportive... You see young people and think you’re so talented, you should really do something with it. If that young person doesn’t believe it in themselves, it’s wasted talent.
For some reason that belief in my artistic abilities was so present in me from such an early age, that when I was encouraged by somebody, I believed it.