A lesson in Canadian history, courtesy of Kent Monkman

A lesson in Canadian history, courtesy of Kent Monkman

A MOTHER is restrained by her dark hair, her long blue dress and her limbs by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. She lunges towards her infant, who has been wrenched out of her hands by a Catholic priest. Elsewhere in the scene, another priest, two nuns and policemen are dragging away more children from their mothers. The women and children are shrieking; in the background some manage to flee.  

“The Scream” (pictured) is a vibrant and jarring painting by Kent Monkman, and though his style is exaggerated, the events it depicts are real. In the late 19th century, the Canadian government adopted a policy of “aggressive assimilation” towards Indigenous people. More than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in “Indian Residential” schools to learn Christian values. Children reported terrible conditions, being raped and beaten and forbidden from speaking their native language. 

The piece is on display in “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience”, an exhibition of Mr Monkman’s work commissioned as part of Canada’s 150th birthday commemorations. His paintings look back at the country’s colonisation of Indigenous people, either depicting its horrors in detail or considering the events anew. The artist, himself of Cree ancestry, says he knew little about this dark era in history as it was never taught in classrooms, or mentioned outside them. His grandmother attended a residential school in Brandon, Manitoba, “but she never really talked about it,” he says. 

The show is made up of paintings and sculptures as well as artifacts borrowed from museums and collections across the country. Divided into nine chapters, it traces a line from past policies such as forced starvation and the “Indian problem” to current issues such as the disproportionately high number of incarcerated Indigenous people. 

The show’s guide is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Mr Monkman’s “alter ego”, a gender-bending, time-travelling, two-spirited Indigenous legendary being whose role it is to make this history lesson more personal, and to inject humour into some dark subjects. She makes herself visible in scenes and moments where Indigenous people were overlooked, such as the arrival of the railroad and the decimation of the buffalo. “The Daddies” is a reimagining of “The Fathers of Confederation”, Robert Harris’s famous painting of the Charlottetown Conference. Miss Chief takes a seat in front of the 23 statesmen, including John Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada. Perched on a Hudson Bay Company blanket—a nod to the Indigenous hunters and trappers who worked for the company—she is completely nude save for her signature black Louboutin heels. She has invited herself to this party of white men deciding her people’s fate.

Although these paintings are “her memoirs”, Miss Chief isn’t in every piece. She is not in “The Scream” because it might draw the viewer’s eye away from the tortured expressions of its subjects. “This is the one I cannot talk about. The pain is too deep,” read the accompanying notes. “We were never the same.”

Elsewhere, Mr Monkman reimagines and refocuses the work of the Old Masters. In “The Massacre of the Innocents”, he swaps out Peter Paul Rubens’s original scene depicting the murder of male babies in Bethlehem for a violent and bloody beaver hunt by European settlers. Mr Monkman’s version of Caravaggio’s “Death of a Virgin” replaces the figure of Mary with a young Indigenous woman in a hospital bed in a bleak comment on the high levels of violence inflicted upon them.

Mr Monkman deliberately works in a large format—“The Scream”, for example, is two by three metres—for he thinks it makes the subjects harder to ignore. He says he was inspired by seeing “The Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Málaga” by Antonio Gisbert in the Prado Museum in Madrid several years ago; he describes his reaction to the three- by six-metre painting as “visceral”. “At that moment,” Mr Monkman says, “it was an epiphany in a sense of realising the power of painting to communicate so effectively, and I wanted to do the same thing for the Indigenous experience”.  

Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released 94 “Calls to Action” in 2015, a report on the legacy of assimilation and residential schools, the country has taken a closer look at its treatment of Indigenous people. Mr Monkman hopes that his art is instructive and may contribute to the reconciliatory work that is being done; “Shame and Prejudice” is making its way across Canada through 2020. “Once the work enters the museums it becomes part of the canon of art history,” he says. “That’s when it becomes harder to ignore and turn away from.”

“Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” is showing at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until December 16th. It will then travel to the McCord Museum in Montreal, Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.

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