Making Miss Chief: Kent Monkman Takes on the West
UPDATE: Kent Monkman’s performance at NMAI, originally scheduled for June 2011, will take place Friday, February 24, 2012, at 6:00 p.m. Please visit www.AmericanIndian.si.edu/calendar for more information.
Below is an article by Kate Morris about Monkman and his alter ego, Miss Chief. It originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of NMAI's American Indian magazine.
Miss Chief, the legendary First Nations performer, will make her much-anticipated debut in the United States this June, sweeping into the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Her aptly titled solo show The Triumph of Mischief has garnered rave reviews during its three-year Canadian tour.
Portraits of the star already adorn the walls of the Mall Museum. Among the 31 works by 25 artists that comprise the exhibition Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection (through Aug. 7, 2011) are five photographic portraits of Miss Chief, collectively titled Emergence of a Legend. Here viewers encounter Miss Chief in various personae. She appears as “The Hunter” in George Catlin’s Indian Gallery of the 1830s, resplendent in feathered headdress, fringed buckskin skirt and seven-inch platform heels, sporting her Louis Vuitton arrow quiver. In another frame, she is the exotic and alluring “Trapper’s Bride” in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and in another, silent film star Cindy Silverscreen, enrobed in luxurious floor-length fur.
These are the many guises of Miss Chief, but all are ultimately the invention of Cree artist Kent Monkman, who created Miss Chief as his own alter ego. Emergence of a Legend documents Monkman’s assumption of the role of Miss Chief, with the assistance of makeup artist Jackie Shan, designer Izzy Camilleri and photographer Christopher Chapman. The five digital photographs in the series are chromogenic prints, printed on metallic paper and framed in gilded wood to recall the tintype processes of late 19th century portraiture.
For Monkman, both the cross-dressing aspects of his performance and the allusion to visual representations of the past are crucial. As he once explained it, “Emulating the context of the original[s] as ethnological documentation… [mine] play with power dynamics within sexuality to challenge historical assumptions of sovereignty, art, commerce, and colonialism.” These are lofty ambitions, but anyone who has encountered Miss Chief in the flesh knows that she – and Monkman – are up to the challenge.
Kent Monkman is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation of northern Manitoba. He was born in 1965 in St. Mary’s, Ont., his mother’s hometown. For the first two years of his life, his family – Cree father, Irish/English mother, and four children – lived in the small Manitoba community of Shamattawa, where his parents had met and served together as Christian missionaries. When Monkman was two, the family settled permanently in Winnipeg, where his father was raised and where many of his Cree relatives still lived. The year was 1967, and Monkman recalled in an interview with Maclean’s magazine that the middle-class neighborhood they moved into was not wholly welcoming to his mixed family: “There were neighbors who wouldn’t speak to my dad when he moved into that neighborhood. It was hard for him to accept that, but he knew that putting his kids into better schools was going to give us a better shot down the road.”
In Winnipeg, Monkman did receive a quality education, especially in the arts. By the age of four he was taking Saturday morning classes at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, determined from that early age to become an artist. At seventeen, Monkman moved to Toronto to continue his studies in painting and drawing at Sheridan College in Oakville. While working towards a degree in illustration (which he completed in 1989) he also became involved in theater and set design. His skills in all of these areas are clearly manifested in Emergence of a Legend. However, the first of Monkman’s works to receive wide critical
acclaim were his paintings.
In early 2000, Monkman embarked on a series of acrylic paintings that are inspired recreations of canonical 19th-century European representations of Native peoples and the North American West. Paintings by George Catlin, Paul Kane, John Mix Stanley and Albert Bierstadt are reproduced nearly brushstroke for brushstroke, yet always with a subversive twist that exposes the romanticism and inherent racism of the originals. Portrait of the Artist as Hunter (2002), now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, depicts a furious buffalo hunt played out across the backdrop of a majestic prairie landscape. In the middle ground, nearly naked Indians on horseback race into the stampeding herd, while a wild-eyed bull in the lower right turns back on the hunters and towards the viewer. Dramatic thunderclouds tower overhead.
As Stanley or Catlin might have painted it in the mid-19th century, the hunt is at once a timeless scene and an elegy for the past. The Indians and their way of life are destined to go the way of the buffalo, and only the painter is left to preserve their memory. The nostalgia of the image is thoroughly trounced, however, by Monkman’s insertion into the scene of two additional figures in the left foreground. Charging into the frame is an Indian warrior in hot pursuit of a cowboy who flees before him. The cowboy wears chaps but no trousers, and the warrior drawing his bow is taking careful aim at the cowboy’s naked buttocks.
Observing the Indian’s costume – pink beaded headdress band, flowing loincloth and stiletto heels – contemporary viewers will recognize the warrior as none other than Miss Chief. In 2002 she was a relative unknown; Portrait of the Artist as Hunter is the first record of her existence. Though not all of Monkman’s paintings in this vein feature Miss Chief, the role she plays in Portrait of the Artist as Hunter is characteristic of this emerging genre. In Monkman’s paintings, figures of frontier mythology such as cowboys and Indians, trappers, pioneers, missionaries and explorers interact in unexpected ways, trading and fighting but also romancing, cavorting and coupling in this exclusively masculine realm.
In a 2007 interview with the Royal Ontario Museum’s magazine, ROM, Monkman was quick to acknowledge that his vision of the West is a subjective one: “The works of artists such as George Catlin and Paul Kane intrigue me. For many, these romantic visions of the New World and its Aboriginal people were assumed to be literal depictions, a kind of reportage photography of the wild landscape and the ‘romantic savage.’ Of course these painters brought their own values and expectations to their work… They took significant license in their paintings. My work, in many ways, challenges their vision of the world. I’m reimagining their world and I’m bringing my own perspective, my own values and prejudices, to it.”
In particular, Monkman intends to address the erasure of alternate forms of gender and sexuality from the standardized accounts of Native (and non-Native) histories. Miss Chief is avowedly two-spirited, embodying the attributes of both male and female. She represents a third gender category that was acknowledged and honored in many traditional Indian communities. Catlin himself sketched a Dance to the Berdash [third gender] but immediately thereafter noted in his journal his contempt for the ceremony, expressing his hope that such practices (and identities) might soon be “extinguished.” In bringing Miss Chief to life on the canvas and off, Monkman ensures that Catlin’s wish will remain unfulfilled.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Miss Chief ’s entry into the scene in Portrait of the Artist as Hunter is the fact that from her very debut, she is firmly established as Monkman’s alter ego (literally “other self ”). The title of the work identifies her as such. By the time we see her again, the bond between Monkman and Miss Chief has become even stronger. In the lower corner of Artist and Model (2003) – a painting that depicts Miss Chief in the act of dutifully sketching a cowboy who is stripped naked and bound to a tree before her – we find the signature “S.E.T.” These are not Monkman’s initials, but Miss Chief ’s; her full name is variously given as Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle or some shortened form thereof. In naming his alter ego after a play on the word egotistical and then subsuming his identity into hers, Monkman thoroughly confuses the relationship between artist and subject.
A single component of Artist and Model preserves the distinction between Monkman and Miss Chief: aesthetics. Monkman’s painting is typical of this series; it is rendered in an exquisitely romantic/realist style that plays with subtleties of light and shadow, sharp focus and hazy atmospheric effects. Miss Chief ’s painting-within-thepainting is hilariously divergent: her canvas is a sheet of birchbark, and on it her rendering of the model is but a stick figure set against a blank background.
As fresh, engaging and imaginative as Monkman’s Miss Chief is, it is important to note that as an artistic alter ego, she is not without precedent. Her genealogy may be traced at least as far back as 1921, the year that the Dada trickster Marcel Duchamp transformed himself into Rrose Selavy. According to the mythology that has grown up around the invention of the character (her name is a pun on the French phrase “Eros c’est la vie” or “Eros is life”), Duchamp created his cross-dressed alter ego in an attempt to “get away from himself.” In Europe during the inter-war period, Duchamp and his Dada collaborators decided that the most radical shift in identity that a Catholic man could make was to become a Jewish woman. Thus Duchamp donned the art deco cloche hat, fur coat and lavish jewelry of his colleague Francis Picabia’s girlfriend, Germaine Everling, and Man Ray took the photograph that would immortalize their collective invention.
Once created as a visual image, Rrose took on a life of her own: she authored letters to Duchamp’s friends, created surrealist word games, and, like Miss Chief, ultimately lent her signature to works of art. The sense of liberation from convention that Duchamp discovered in the guise of a crossdressed alter ego is one that many 20th century artists have embraced.
In the world of contemporary Native art perhaps the nearest analog to Rrose Selavy or Miss Chief is to be found in the series of selfportraits that Mohawk photographer Shelley Niro produced in 1991, collectively titled Mohawks in Beehives. In these warm, humorous images, the artist and her three sisters appear done up in towering beehive hairdos, wearing tacky 1950s fashions and clowning for the camera. Niro described the genesis of the series to an interviewer: “[It] was created in March of ’91, after Oka and the Gulf War…. Everybody was trying to fight the depression that lingered over that month. So I thought up Mohawks in Beehives as a way of bringing a bit of control into my life and the people around me; the control is really a state of liberation, a freedom in expressing ourselves. It was liberating in the fact that we just allowed ourselves to act, to be flamboyant and outrageous…”
The following year, when planning a series of works in response to the Columbian Quincentennial of 1992, Niro returned to this strategy, creating 12 new self-portraits in which she is dressed as an iconic “other.” Among the self-portraits of Niro’s This Land is Mime Land series are at least two cross-dressed impersonations. The most delightfully campy portrait depicts Niro as Elvis Presley, an icon of masculine sexuality. In Love Me Tender that sexuality is utterly deflated, as Niro refuses to play her guitar or move her hips, and the legs of her illfitting sequined jumpsuit puddle impotently around her feet. The sly smile on Niro’s face in this image attests to the fact that even – or especially – when confronting issues as serious as the legacy of colonialism, the employment of an alter ego is both a liberating experience and an effective strategy of engagement.
Fans of Shelley Niro’s work will be delighted to find that her photographic installation La Pieta (2001–2006) also graces the walls of Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection. It is displayed in the gallery adjacent to Monkman’s Emergence of a Legend. Both can be viewed at once, the two multi-paneled compositions engaging in silent dialogue. The two works are very different in tone, yet both address serious matters: Niro’s is a haunting statement about the personal and environmental consequences of war. Like Monkman, Niro uses the male body as a sensual symbol. Standing amidst the photographs of the landscape of the Mohawk Nation in Niro’s La Pieta is a solitary figure – a softly glowing male torso. “He represents youth, perfect form at its peak,” says Niro. “There is a purity and innocence about it.” Alluring, yet understated, it moves us to contemplate the full gravity of
sacrifice and loss.
If the emotional impact of Niro’s portrayal of the Native body is owed to its sense of reserve, then it is a perfect complement to Monkman’s own performative impulse. Miss Chief was once asked the question, “Why is your personality so large, why do you overwhelm every room you walk into?”
Her reply: “Well, I am up against some very large problems, which require a large personality.” It is likely we will be seeing a lot more of Miss Chief.
Kate Morris is assistant professor of art history at Santa Clara University. She writes on contemporary Native art.