Kent Monkman: Painting in an age of colonial denial
SIX NATIONS – Over 50 people spent an enjoyable evening at the Woodland Cultural Centre with reknowned Cree-Canadian artist Kent Monkman last Wednesday night. Monkman spoke of his engagment with the Canadian art scene, his interests as an Aboriginal artist, and treated the audience to a narrated slideshow of his major works. The Two Row Times had a chance to talk with Monkman about his work after the event.[justified_image_grid ng_gallery=5]
How did you get into art world?
I identified at a very early age as an artist, so I guess it was really just a question as to which path I would need to take to arrive there, as a professional artist. As a teenager I studied illustration because I didn’t want to wait on tables. Shortly after graduating, I made my own oil paintings and [developed] my own art projects. It worked well because I was able to freelance and [devote] a lot of time to my own art practice.
I think pretty early on in my work, part of my journey was trying to find the vocabulary through painting or visual expression that I could really make my own, that would allow me to express the themes or concerns that were important to me. But it wasn’t until the late 90s that I found a strong direction which started with the prayer language paintings using Cree syllabics as a motif to talk about colonization, and the impact of Christianity on Aboriginal communities. Sexuality was one of the other themes in my work.
How was your art expressed in terms of your day to day experiences as an Aboriginal person in Winnipeg?
Winnipeg has a very strong Aboriginal population. My father’s Cree side is from that community so I very much identified with that community, and they have always been part of my world view. There was no decisive moment when I started communicating my background in my expression, its just been who I am my entire life.
But the turning point for me professionally happened when I started looking into art history in the 19th century to challenge [these] authoritative narratives made by these European settlers about First Nations people in North America. That opened a huge can of worms that I dove very deep inside of. Some of these artists saw themselves as documentators. They were making paintings that were essentially billboards for businessmen and industrialists to encourage the expansion and the sale of the west. It was about selling the idea of the North American west as a place of promise and investment. I saw those paintings as billboards for the selling and expropriation of Native lands.
I will always primarily be a painter first and foremost. Even though it was considered a dead form for the last 100 years, I believe in the power of paintings. I am learning a tradition that Europeans left for dead. I am using painting and making it my own language. It is still an important form of art that can be exciting and dynamic. Although people have moved away from painting and conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp was one of the most imnfluential artists of the 20th century because he opened the door for artists to be conceptual artists.
And from there on, no one felt like it was necessary to make their own art. I came into other mediums because it is about reaching a wide audience. After being in my studio for two years – almost in isolation – I wanted to work with films and actors and other artists, work in other mediums is very much about collaborations and being able to go back and forth. The work that I do in film, video, live performance – the paintings feed the other works and have ideas stay fresh and exciting.
Do you think Canada has come to terms with its colonial past and present?
I think Canada is still on the tipping point, especially with Stephen Harper in power, there is still a degree of denial. He outright denied that Canada was ever a colonial nation. How do you begin to move forward if your government is still in a state of denial about what actually happened here? There is an ongoing process towards educating people. Change in the future could begin with looking at the original treaties and what they entailed, a sharing of resources. Seeing that Native people were supposed to be partners, not treated like wards of the state.
What are your thoughts on the Idle No More movement?
I think that Idle No More (INM) is amazing. It brought to the surface what many artists, like myself, were already doing for many years, but it brought it to a public light. Many artists have been carrying forward the same intent and core values of what INM represents. The fact that it grew to a grassroots movement where non-artists and regular people were embracing it and acting on it really brought it to the public in a different way. All the things that INM talked about and [are] bringing to the forefront and raising awareness [about] is stuff that many artists have been doing for years. It’s about challenging perceptions people have about First Nations still today, and the history that was written about us, and all these things that were happening in our communities for a long time.
Monkman’s exhibit will be on display at the Woodland Centre until December 20th, 2014.