Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Story of Resilience

A matador with a perfect bubble butt struts in Louboutin heels, unbound hair streaming over his shoulder. He faces off against a bull loosed by Picasso on the north side of Winnipeg. His cape is a Hudson’s Bay blanket. The last matador down, a more conventional fellow, is attended to by a kneeling First Nations man. Behind the wounded modernist bull, whose testicles are the size of canteloupes, a herd of bison roam the street. Across a vacant lot, a car goes up in flames as a troupe of shamanistic buffalo dancers press toward it. A police helicopter hovers overhead, as does a seventeenth-century Mercury in winged helmet.

This is the vision of Kent Monkman, the queer Cree artist whose current exhibition, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, is currently on view at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto. Monkman’s alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, presides over this monumental Trickster indictment of Eurocanadian cultural genocide against the indigenous peoples of Canada. The show is a triumph for Monkman, a coup for the Museum, and as trenchant an antidote to national smugness as we’re likely to see in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

Eurocanadians love to congratulate ourselves on, well, how much less self-congratulatory we are than Americans. Ironically, what we so often fail to recognize is the strong current of critique and dissent deeply ingrained in the American political tradition. By contrast, Canadians are more often than not loathe to call ourselves and this country to genuine account for the dark side of its history and present life.  Monkman is calling our bluff.
Nothing’s sacred here. The iconic group portrait of the Fathers of Confederation is reconceived as “The Daddies.” The scandalized architects of national unification gaze with detached distaste, with fascination, with dread, or all of the above at a nude Miss Chief seated in the foreground, back to the viewer of the painting, on a champaign case covered by yet another Hudson’s Bay blanket. In another painting, Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of a united Canada, stands with glass askew and a drained bottle on the floor behind him, at the shoulder of his apprehensive wife.
And everything’s sacred here. Anthropomorphized beavers become the victims of a reimagined Slaughter of the Innocents  in which indigenous and colonial hunters share complicity; a silent Miss Chief looks on from where he shelters survivors behind a tree. Native women fight for their children as nuns, priests, and Mounties struggle to abduct them into the horrors of the residential school system. A vast landscape evoking nineteenth-century Romantic visions of the sublime is populated by bears--some four-footed and fur-covered, some two-footed, leather-clad, and sporting erections. A native woman lies dying in a hospital bed, surrounded by mourners who revision Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin.
The resilience of the show’s title is the resilience it documents. It’s also the resilience it embodies--the resilience of the First Nations, but in the second instance also the resilience of queers, of the natural world, of the survivors of spiritual abuse, of all those who know we have to stand together, at the intersection of our struggles to claim our lives.