Jessica Leong and Esmé Hogeveen
Leading up to this year’s Canada 150 celebrations, Barbara Fischer, Chief Curator of the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, didn’t want its programming to fall into simplistic celebration.
It was clear the country as a whole was rethinking the relationship between many aspects of its past, including Indigenous Peoples, government policy, and the environment. “It’s misleading what 150 years mean on this continent,” says Fischer. “It seemed critical to take a longer and different look at the celebration.”
As she considered the best approach for the show, Kent Monkman quickly came to mind as an Indigenous artist exploring how we look and think about our own history. Fischer inquired if he was interested in creating an exhibition for the museum after seeing one of his early shows in Montreal. He agreed and, over two years, planned and executed his touring exhibition, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience.
Monkman is known for his highly specific and satirical interpretation of traditional European-style landscape paintings. Monkman plays upon the tension of these typically pristine, sublime landscapes that have little to no representation of Indigenous Peoples. Upon closer inspection of his work, you’ll see moments restaged or specific events reimagined to include Indigenous subjects, “often intensely laced with humour, with satire and a debunking of stereotypes,” notes Fischer. “[Many historical paintings] do not acknowledge the land is already settled. It omits not only the presence of these nations, peoples, but also erases them.”
The exhibition included large-scale paintings, loaned historical artifacts, and noticeable traces of Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Together, it created mainstream discussion through art around Canada’s sesquicentennial.
It’s misleading what 150 years mean on this continent. It seemed critical to take a longer and different look at the celebration.
One of Monkman’s new works titled The Scream had a particularly poignant effect on those who saw it. The painting (shown above) depicts children being taken off reserves and from their parents to be brought to residential schools.
“We have so many pictures of the residential schools and children sitting on the steps of the schools, but there’s none that show how it [was] that children came to the schools to begin with, that moment they were taken from their parents,” says Fischer.
Some who visited the exhibition and who had personal connections to the residential schools said they couldn’t revisit the show because it was too difficult to re-experience and re-live. Fischer says, “For those who had not been directly affected, I think it somehow brought it close. I think people very much felt and could [start to] experience what it might have meant.”
Image: The Scream by Kent Monkman (2017)