PRINT March 2020



Kent Monkman, Resurgence of the People, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 11 × 22'.

AT THE OPENING for Kent Monkman’s mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People), 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s inaugural commission for a new initiative that brings works of contemporary art to its Great Hall, the Canadian Cree artist declared his love for the Western canon: “I love the Old Masters. I love Titian. I love Rubens. I love Delacroix.” Across the nearly five hundred square feet of the two history paintings that constitute the project—Resurgence of the People and Welcoming the Newcomers—echoes of these artists’ works appear in gestures, figural groupings, costumes, and physiognomies, many of them quoted from pictures in the Met’s collection and beyond.

As with last year’s presentation of the Kenyan American Wangechi Mutu’s bronze caryatids on its Fifth Avenue facade, the Met is continuing its bid for relevance and expanding the inclusiveness of its mission, which Monkman’s project serves in two ways. First, his paintings shine a light on the museum’s collection: Didactic panels in the Great Hall prompt viewers to look anew at fifteen works on view in other galleries that his paintings have enlisted in his cause. Second, according to director Max Hollein, the commission allows the Met “to expand the story”which sounds as if the institution is still telling the same story, though now graciously, if belatedly, extending an invitation to a contemporary indigenous artist. The terms of this affirmation of the capaciousness of the universal-survey museum risk overlooking the very subject of mistikôsiwak. Who, after all, is hosting whom?

Although Resurgence of the People borrows its composition from Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Monkman has audaciously replaced the slaveholding founding father with his own longtime alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, whose name alone is commanding, mischievous, playfully sexual, and ironic. In appearance, she’s an amalgam of the Indian from the Village People, Cher from her “Half-Breed” era, and the artist himself. In this painting, Miss Chief’s pose conjures that of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Victory, 1892–1903, as well as Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830; her feathered coiffure recalls the wings of the Nike of Samothrace, and her fluttering scarlet boa, which barely hides her modesty, echoes the sculpture’s famously wet drapery.

Kent Monkman, Welcoming the Newcomers, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 11 × 22'.

Although the exhibition takes its title from the Cree word referring to the Europeans who landed on North American shores centuries ago, Monkman’s Welcoming the Newcomers reminds us that Native Americans and First Nations people were the original and paradigmatic hosts. Here on Turtle Island, an indigenous term for the North American continent, migrants are received variously: Pocahontas pulls John Smith to safety; a red-haired Adonis embraces a native Venus; Hiawatha surveys the scene; a vigilant warrior reaches for another arrow, his last having pierced the side of a missionary who claws at a rock with one hand while keeping a firm grip on a Christian cross in the other. While swimming to shore, a black man in chains, a brown man in a headdress (modeled on Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Bashi-Bazouk, 1868–69), and a helmeted white conquistador all desperately reach out to be saved. And what does Miss Chief do? Hair swept aside, rainbow earring proudly on display, and the band of her beaded G-string taut around her waist, she bends down, leans forward, and—perched on her almost too-high Louboutin stilettos—lends a hand in an act of unconditional hospitality. As Miss Chief, Monkman delivers the exemplum virtutis that academic doctrine requires of history painting.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Bashi-Bazouk, 1868–69, oil on canvas, 31 3⁄4 × 26".

In a country that cages migrant children and burns the earth that will soon burn us, Monkman’s pendants reveal the disillusion and destruction bequeathed by empire and global capitalism—our one collective inheritance. The interlocking crises of inequality, mass migration, and environmental disaster constitute, in Bruno Latour’s words, our “new and wicked universalism.” In Resurgence of the People, nature has turned morbid. A boat is featured, packed with twenty-three people, a mouse, and a beaver. Unlike Welcoming the Newcomers, the figures are huddled together, more limited in their actions, while four of them, intensely focused on salvation, row like mad. On the listing side of the vessel, a brown woman and a black man rescue two men from drowning. Who is not onboard? On a tiny, barren island in the background, four gun-waving militiamen, one making the sign of white supremacy, jeer in defiance, as ready to kill as they are to die for their own toxicity. In the foreground, a Wall Street banker, according to Monkman, can’t conceive of the solidarity of the people on the boat. Resentful and outraged that he’s not at the helm, he tugs at an oar, trying to pull everyone down into the water with him. Still spotless, his orange Hermès tie is tossed over his shoulder—but when he goes down, the tie will go with him. Nature makes no distinction for ethnicity and class.

As Miss Chief, Monkman delivers the exemplum virtutis that academic doctrine requires of history painting.

At the midpoint of his career, Monkman’s work has gained new depth. Born and raised in the vibrant and offbeat regional art center of Winnipeg and now based in Toronto, he has exhibited often in Canada and regularly in Europe, but only recently in the US. He works in installation, performance, and video, though his greatest ambition is as a history painter. Visiting his studio is like dropping in on our era’s queer First Nations Rubens. If the camp attraction of Miss Chief has seemed to push open the doors of major institutions, she brings with her keen political insight about the conundrum of belonging and genocide. Since 2017, Monkman has been touring Canada with a bracing exhibition for the 150th anniversary of the country’s federation titled “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience.” (Can you imagine if such a show had been presented on the bicentennial of the American Revolution?)

One leitmotif shared by that show and mistikôsiwak was lifted by Monkman from Delacroix’s The Natchez, 1823–35, a depiction of a young indigenous couple and their newborn inspired by François-René de Chateaubriand’s novel Atala (1801), which tells the story of a family’s narrow escape from a massacre of their people. In Monkman’s 2015 Massacre of the Innocents, Miss Chief, posed like the father in The Natchez, cradles a beaver, an animal native to North America that was almost wiped out by the fur trade. Similarly, in both mistikôsiwak canvases, native parents—straight, gay, and trans—cradle newborns, symbols of survival in the face of colonization and of hope for our future in the face of environmental disaster. 

Looking up at Resurgence of the People in the Great Hall, the Met visitor might see that Monkman has tossed us a message in a plastic Coke bottle. It floats in the water between Miss Chief’s boat and the island of white supremacists as an emblem and agent of our polluted oceans, melting glaciers, and rising seas. On the other side of the museum wall, the David H. Koch Plaza fountains burble, as they have since 2014. When they were first unveiled, the Met celebrated them for their “environmentally friendly design,” though their donor had long funded climate-change deniers. Which vision for the planet will determine our fate?

As for the fate of the museum as a site for provocation or for complacency, we will know more once Monkman’s paintings are integrated into the collection. Perhaps rather than sending them to the contemporary wing, they will be hung together with the art that inspired them. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to see Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People flank Washington Crossing the Delaware? That would not only be a statement about the power and relevance of the entirety of the Met’s collection, but also might rededicate the national narrative to our dual obligations of hospitality and survival. 

Todd Porterfield is a professor at the Gallatin School of New York University, where he teaches on Art and Empire.