A military dirge plays off in the distance, enlivened by the drums of war to match; the walls of the the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery are adorned with artifacts of Quebec’s colonial past. Revelers, expecting something a bit more contemporary, stand facing a 100-year-old tableau of Montcalm’s last stand, looking at each other, dumbfounded. But continuing through Kent Monkman’s new exhibition My Treaty is With The Crown, the artist’s intentions soon reveal themselves.
Weaving biblical myth and Canadian history with a healthy dose of camp, artist Kent Monkman uses a variety of different media to explore society’s ongoing relationship with the taboo. Monkman casts his own alter ego, the aboriginal Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, across a series of paintings, photographs, etchings and videos that are meant to contrast older works on loan from several archives and national galleries. Recalling biblical ‘fallen women’ Delilah (of Samson fame) and Mary Magdalene, Miss Eagle is seen in one painting cutting locks of hair from a sleeping Montcalm, just on the eve of his battlefield defeat. The new work is painted on a large canvas, its romantic style meant to directly echo the century-older works that sit alongside it.
Monkman’s aim to shock spectators with a figure so alien and anachronistic in the otherwise familiar repeats itself throughout the exhibit. He decided it was time to turn the tables on himself, and become the artist instead of the model.
But that only tells half the story. In this exhibition, artistic meaning is derived entirely from the model’s point of view. The environment that Monkman creates, filled with sounds and visions of a different era, is brought to life in the sporadic, playful appearances of his Miss Eagle persona. It has the effect of both lending his very modern alter-ego a historic weight and making the past feel just a little bit weirder.
One of the more successful pieces is also one of the simplest. Two glass cases sit on the gallery’s floor, both filled with large red footwear. On the left, a pair of traditional Cree leggings, actually worn in the presence of the Prince of Wales upon his 1860 visit to Montreal. On the right, a flashy pair of red vinyl boots, with six-inch heels and shining studs along the side that could only be worn, if ever, at a revival of La Cage aux Folles. The artist offers no more explanation, leaving it to exhibit-goers to consider the various implications and similarities that arise from being non-white, non-male and non-straight inÂ societies that don’t exactly cater to any of those lifestyles.
My Treaty is With the Crown will be at the Leonard & Ellen Bina Gallery until April 16.