Using wit, insight, and no small amount of skill, Kent Monkman creates multidisciplinary works that encompass both violent colonial legacies and humorous flights of fancy. His biggest installation yet—titled The Big Four—is currently on view at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. Inspired by the history of the Calgary Stampede as well as his own experiences as a person of Cree descent, it consists of four cars, four life-sized figures bearing Monkman’s own visage, four videos shot from motor vehicles, and dozens of artifacts from the Glenbow’s collection. Here, Monkman expands on the roots of The Big Four and other works.
Leah Sandals: Your work has many facets—political, sexual, artistic, historical. What most drives your artmaking practice?
Kent Monkman: Those elements seem kind of interwoven to me. I think every artist is driven by different things. Those motivations can change from day to day, as well as between bodies of work and individual works. Sometimes the political becomes more important, other times, it’s the emotional experience.
I guess I’m driven by wanting to create strong works of art. Aside from whatever the statement might be, it’s about making strong works of art that are challenging to myself and to a viewer.
LS: You have come up with some great ideas for works in addition to executing them really well. Les Castors du Roi at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal is one work that comes to mind—the idea is at once really funny, because it’s so absurd, and also really sad, because it references a violent history. How do you know when an idea is going to work? Or how do you know when it goes too far?
KM: I don’t know. I think that’s the beauty of having a practice as a painter. My work is different from conceptual art, where the idea is the most important part. When you are actually making a work of art, there’s a kind of transformation that happens in that process. You have a strong idea that propels the work, but you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. That’s what makes it exciting and dangerous and thrilling all at the same time—the transformation that happens through the contact with your medium.
And some things fail. They don’t always, but it happens. I think that’s also part of being an artist: you can’t always expect everything to succeed, especially if you’re pushing yourself or exploring new territory. In that case, you know some things will fail. Part of it is you have to be okay with that—and if you’re not, you probably shouldn’t be making art.
LS: So as an example, can you talk a bit about the process around Castors du Roi?
KM: It started in conversation with MBAM curator Jacques Des Rochers, who curated the historical gallery that that painting was commissioned for. He sent me images from the period of New France. I had come across some hunting paintings that were commissioned by the king of France at the time that the French lost the New France to the Brits, too.
Interestingly, there was nothing representative of North America in those latter hunting paintings.
So that was where the idea came from: bringing forward my own research about that New France period and meeting Jacques, who brought forward other iconography, and then bringing those different ideas together. It started with sketches and feedback on sketches, and it was really helpful to work with someone who had a strong knowledge of the iconography from that period.
LS: Your piece at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary was inspired by another set of histories around the 100th anniversary of the Stampede in 2012. How did that inspiration play out in the installation?
KM: The Glenbow wanted me to do some kind of response piece to the Stampede, so I did a research trip out to Calgary in 2012. I had never been to the event, and I didn’t know much about it.
The most interesting part of that trip for me—because I had been to other rodeos already—was the Indian Village [the area of the Stampede grounds designated for First Nations tipis and cultural displays]. I spoke to some of the elders at the Indian Village and learned a lot about it.
When the founders of the Stampede created the rodeo, they wanted to have the First Nations participate. That was unusual compared to other rodeos, but they really felt that the First Nations were a very important part of the story of the west.
At that time [in the early 1910s], First Nations people were more or less incarcerated on reserves. You needed permission from an Indian agent to leave the reserve for anything— whether it be to go and sell something that you had grown on your farm, or anything else.
That got me thinking about the legacy of incarceration of native people in the 100 years since the Stampede was founded. That has manifested itself in a disproportionate number of First Nations people still incarcerated in our country’s federal and provincial institutions—they are sometimes as much as 50 per cent of the inmates in certain institutions.
So the piece in Calgary kind of became about this idea of incarceration. I had also read a book by Leonard Peltier, and in one chapter he had wrote about “Indian cars” or “res cars,” and about how they were looked down upon by white people as pieces of junk. But he also wrote about how they functioned as a form of freedom and mobility; sometimes, people lived in the cars. And that was how incorporating cars into this piece came about.
Then, it grew from there. I also used the cars as museum cases—or vitrines, in a way—to display objects from the museum’s collection.
One of the other main points I got from one of the elders at the Indian Village was how important the Stampede had been actually to maintaining their culture. He said if it hadn’t been for the Stampede, their culture would have died out. I thought that was pretty profound.
That elder also talked about the economic disparity of prize money at the Stampede, historically speaking. You would have, like, the “Indian events,” where they would get 5 bucks for bronco busting—as opposed to 500 bucks in the mainstream part of the rodeo.
LS: It’s interesting that in the Stampede story, there’s a sense of groups being indebted to each other in some way. That also comes across in some other parts of your work.
KM: You know, I grew up in Manitoba and had been to some rodeos out there, and I had never seen any presence of First Nations people. So I was sort of commending the Stampede for having made that effort.
Some people criticize [the Indian Village] for being something that perpetuates stereotypes, but I kind of disagree with that, because these are First Nations people who are very much alive and living in the modern world. Their cultural heritage is something they keep alive in a number of different ways. At the Stampede, that is shown through their handiwork, their beadwork, their tipis.
And there’s a parade nearly each day for each First Nation that participates in the Stampede, right down the main streets of Calgary. I thought, “That’s amazing—I never saw that in Winnipeg!”
LS: Speaking of issues of cultural preservation and growth, you’re in two Canadian surveys of aboriginal art right now: “Beat Nation” and “Sakahàn.” You’re also in a similar show created in the United States titled “Changing Hands.” How do you feel about these types of exhibitions? Are there pros and cons to them?
KM: I think there are pros and cons. Ideally, I would like to see more First Nations curators, and more curators in general, curating First Nations people into more broadly themed exhibitions that aren’t just about cultural heritage! I feel it’s been done to death a little bit. So I would like to see people incorporating First Nations artists into wider dialogues with international artists. That’s what has to happen.
LS: In your own work, you have started to address other nations and continents—in the recent painting Miss Africa, for example. What prompted you to address colonial legacies on other continents?
KM: I’m kind of a student of art history and Western painting, so I’ve looked at a lot of different painters over the years; that’s how I’ve developed my own practice.
In that process, I came across a suite of paintings by Tiepolo, a commission he did in a bishop’s residence in Germany. It’s a cycle of the four continents.
I think I was first struck by his vision of America; each continent was represented by a female archetype and his representation of America was this bare-chested Amazon princess with an ostrich-feathered headdress—pure fantasy and exoticism.
I immediately imagined my alter ego Miss Chief fulfilling that idea of “Miss America,” creating a painting of the same name. I also wanted to put her into works inspired by the other continent paintings Tiepolo did, too, so that the series would address European fantasies about “the other” and about indigenous cultures not just in America, but in Asia and Africa as well.
Tiepolo’s depiction of Europe is based on the myth of Zeus capturing and raping Europa. So I saw these four continents as these metaphors for that kind of raping and pillaging and being exploited. I also wanted to address the violence that is inherent in those kinds of enterprises.
LS: You mention Miss Chief, a figure who recurs through your work in performance, painting and photography. When do you feel it is necessary to perform a gesture rather than represent it?
KM: Well, Miss Chief is a colourful character and I’ve been offered a lot of opportunities to… trot her out, I guess! Ha!
But I’m very careful and reluctant to do that a lot, because I usually want the performance-art pieces to have some kind of relationship to an exhibition or museum collection. I also have a notebook of ideas that I’ve been thinking about that could be better addressed as performance pieces.
LS: So you don’t always want to take up every performance opportunity that comes your way…
KM: No, because I think that would just weaken it and water it down. And also because there’s this perception that it’s “just drag.” I don’t think of it as drag. I see Miss Chief as being that two-spirit, sort of berdache persona.
So it’s not about trying to be a female impersonator. I really like to distinguish what I’m doing from what is more commonly known as drag; I really am very careful about crossing that line and keeping it more rare.
LS: Thanks for making that distinction. What’s next for you?
KM: Well, I’m exploring a lot of new ideas right now that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I am going to continue with the two remaining paintings from the four-continents series: Europe and Asia.
I’m also doing a performance at the Denver Art Museum in October and opening a show in early 2014 at Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain. And I’m doing a project at the McCord Museum which opens in late January. I’m focusing on their photography collection, this time focusing on the influence of photography on painting.
This interview has been edited and condensed. This article was corrected on August 15, 2013. The original copy suggested the show at PFOAC was happening in “early 2013.”