Power of the Paintbrush

Introduction to Sexuality Studies

Kent Monkman has been chipping at the foundations of our politely Eurocentric art world for years now. Despite an often humorous twist, all is not played for laughs. Inspired by his ancestry to explore the history that bore an annihilation of Indigenous culture, and an exposure to contrived Judeo-Christian values, Monkman illuminates the shameful historical treatment of Canadian Indigenous peoples by British and French colonizers, while cleverly drawing upon the fundamental principles of the same inequities Indigenous cultures face today.

Monkman is part of a small-scale contingent of Canadian First Nations artists who are expressing an alternative historical account of colonization through their work. Before analyzing his art, a brief review of Monkman’s upbringing and an introduction to the establishment of his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle will take place. This paper will then go on to investigate the forms of art produced in the 19th century, and the use of these artworks as documents of history supporting colonial expansion. An analysis of two of Monkman’s paintings will effectively highlight the strategies he uses to challenge the accepted westernized version of history as told by his predecessors.

Monkman was born in 1965, too late to witness the force of Christianity on First Nations, but not too late to forget it. When he was a young boy, his parents were devout evangelical Christians. They had met through church work. His family first lived as missionaries, on a remote reserve at Shamattawa in North Manitoba (Hannon 2011). His childhood was unique in that he was exposed to both western creationist religious beliefs and Indigenous cultural practices. As he grew and learnt about his ancestry, Monkman began to question the religious beliefs instilled upon him (Clinning 2015). Knowing he would pursue art later in life, Monkman studied and traveled for years, and now successfully constructs new stories through images that take into account the missing narratives and perspectives of Indigenous peoples. His work effectively explores stereotypes of masculinity and queer culture, often using sexuality as a tool for challenging the authority of established histories (Murray 2015).

Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (Miss Chief) is Monkman’s compelling Two Spirited alter ego. He paints her into his work as his own persona, able to travel back in time through art. Dressed in feathers, sequins and high-heeled platform moccasins, her name puns the terms “mischief” and “egotistical” (Pearlman 2010). She is Monkman’s opportunity to play off the “egotistical” and impractical perspectives of 19th century painters (Mason 2012).

Monkman was inspired to create Miss Chief while studying the work of George Catlin, a 19th century American artist and showman who travelled the American west, collecting artifacts and documenting what he thought to be a vanishing culture (Hannon 2011). Catlin often painted himself into his depictions of First Nations. Monkman wanted Miss Chief to act as colossal character, able to counter Catlin’s falsified depictions of Indigenous culture (Hannon 2011). Monkman describes her purpose through an interview with The Huffington Post, “I wanted to create an artistic persona that could rival that of Catlin, so Miss Chief was created to reverse the gaze. She looks back at European settlers,” (Brooks 2014). Miss Chief nonchalantly strolls through the art world that historically denied her existence, and offers a new spin on the narrative (Amos 2010). She shuffles unresolved issues concerning colonialism, Native American sexuality and the meaning of art (Amos 2010). The indefinability of her sexual identity and surroundings, “make reference to the uncertainty of the presentation of sexuality in the past. Viewer’s questioning of the canvas is a reminder to question the present accepted ideas of sexuality and power,” (Clinning 2015).

A broad range of gender and erotic relationships existed among Indigenous populations upon initial contact. Before colonization, there was equality between sexes among Indigenous societies. Because of this equality, “womanly males” and “manly females” were common, and considered a gender in their own right. The term “Two-Spirited” is the contemporary term used to describe peoples of this third gender, although traditionally described by colonizers as the “berdache” (Clinning 2015). Indigenous cultures saw this third gender as a privilege. Two-Spirited individuals were considered to be more in touch with all peoples, as well as with the spiritual elements of the earth (Mason 2012). In her groundbreaking anthropological work, Sue-Ellen Jacobs researched centuries of written documents for references to third gender or Two-Spirited people in Native North American Tribes. “Out of 99 tribes, 88 referred to Two-Spirited culture, including both male and female homosexuality or transgender,” (Jacobs 1997). Fluidity between gender roles and sexual behavior was therefore recognized, and there was a sufficient lack of homophobia prior to contact. This drastically changed upon the arrival of the settlers (Clinning 2015).

Racist sexism and heterosexism meshed upon settlement in order to legislate and define First Nations political activity (Cannon 2012). The Europeans were specifically disgusted by the sexual behavior of Two-Spirited individuals and condemned them for their actions (Clinning 2015). Sabine Lang expands on the interaction upon first contact in her study, Various Kinds of Two-Spirited People: Gender Variance and Homosexuality in Native American Communities. She states,

Because male Two-Spirits often entered into sexual relationships with men, anthropologists and other writers on the subject… interpreted Two-Spirited roles as institutionalized male homosexuality, as a way to integrate homosexual and therefore “deviant” males into North American Indian cultures (Lang 1997).

French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault suggests that, “sexuality is just as construed and manipulated by power dynamics as history is, meaning that a less powerful group’s acceptance of these structures speaks to their submissiveness to this power and/or oppression” (Foucault 1980). Foucault establishes sexuality and sexual identity as flexible characteristics of a culture, vulnerable to control and manipulation (Clinning 2015). Considering Foucault’s study, it is notable that Indigenous tribes were forcibly ashamed of traditional behaviours, recognized as unacceptable to Christian colonizers. Upon settlement, colonizers conflated the term berdache with homosexuality in order to establish deviance. The term left no recognition of Native sex and gender systems (Cannon 2012). Such an interpretation is detrimental, as Harriet Whitehead has argued, “Sexual practices and beliefs must be understood within the context of the specific gender-meaning system of the culture in question” (Whitehead 1993). Although originally viewed as privileged, Two-Spirited identities were rejected, lost and forgotten upon settlement. The intolerance of Indigenous sexuality is evident through an analysis of art history.

Recognizing the misrepresentation of sexuality of Indigenous cultures through 19th century paintings, Monkman explores the idea of berdaches in his own work to play on the inaccuracies of history (Mason 2012). He challenges the power of heteropatriarchy in his work, Study for Artist and Model. This painting was specifically inspired by George Catlin’s, Catlin Painting the Portrait of Mah-to-toh — Mandan (Clinning 2015). Catlin is historically defined as a modern hero, “a man different from other “mortals” who sacrifices his quiet and decent life for the benefit of the cultural interest of the Indigenous; gifting them with the opportunity to be visited by civilized men like himself” (Clinning 2015). In Catlin Painting the Portrait of Mah-to-toh — Mandan, he paints himself, an artist at work, surrounded by a group of Natives in awe of his artistry as he recreates the image of an apathetic Chief standing before him (Clinning 2015). Catlin’s ignorance is evident through an analysis of his self-portrait, as he depicts Indigenous culture inaccurately, while promoting himself, a white American artist. Self-promotion is obvious as Catlin’s canvas is blurred in the painting. The fact he is recreating the image of an apathetic Chief is irrelevant. Catlin and his artistry are the relevant aspects of the painting. Catlin depicts himself not only as welcomed by the community, but as a point of fascination and wonder to Indigenous peoples (Clinning 2015). His paintings are evidently fueled by heteropatriarchy. As Monkman clarifies his inspiration to challenge Catlin’s portrait, he states,

Catlin and others were obsessed with capturing peoples who wouldn’t exist in the future. Museums have contributed to this idea. As a kid I would go down to this museum in Winnipeg and see Indigenous cultures represented in this perfect state. This is what we were supposed to be. And then I’d step out onto the streets and see skid row and the fall out of colonization (Brooks 2014).

In Study for Artist and Model, Monkman attempts to regain recognition of the Indigenous identities that were discretely dismantled by 19th century painters. Monkman’s painting, set in a ‘sylvan bower a la Barbizon’ presents Miss Chief in a floor-length war bonnet, and little else, painting a pictogram on her canvas (Amos 2010). Her model is a buff cowboy backed up against a tree. His jeans are pulled down around his ankles, and he is erect. “His body is pierced like St. Sebastian by arrows from Miss Chief’s Louis Vuitton quiver” (Amos 2010). Her quiver is a symbol of the commodification of Catlin’s Native subjects. In claiming a modern symbol of wealth, status, and luxury, she reaffirms her power as an Indigenous Two-Spirited identity (Swanson 2012). Monkman gives the power of the paintbrush to Miss Chief, and physically pins down the European, forcing him to be her subject (Clinning 2015). On Miss Chief’s canvas, a shapeless dancing buffoon is painted, rather than her resistant model. The image on her canvas pokes fun at Catlin’s self-centeredness and therefore clouded depiction of history. Through his painting, Monkman shifts Indigenous identity from that of the passive object painted by Catlin, to the active subject exerting control over history. Miss Chief is representative of an active culture, not a vanishing one. In a sense, Monkman gives the power of the paintbrush to all First Nations people, by placing them in charge of their own destiny. He makes Europeans the object of their gaze, while reviving a fluid approach to sexuality with the presence of his Two-Spirited alter ego (Hannon 2011).

The results of Study for Artist and Model are, “at first hilarious, then chilling, and finally thought provoking in a way that will not be forgotten” (Amos 2012). The painting presents a version of history so unlikely that it forces the viewer to question the truthfulness of Catlin’s original depiction of Indigenous peoples (Clinning 2015). By affirming the Two-Spirited identity within the historical context, Monkman is able to retell the story of colonization and create a worldview that pays respect to the traditional values of accepting and honoring sexual diversity amongst Indigenous cultures (King 2004). Although Monkman’s work appears to be outrageous upon first glance, an analysis of this painting in particular points to his skill not only as a painter, but also as a critic (Murray 2015).

In addition to Catlin, Monkman has countered the work of acclaimed landscape painters including Paul Kane, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and John Mix Stanley. These 19th century painters portrayed European colonization upon the American west landscape in a romanticized fashion (Mason 2012). Differing from Catlin in a way, with the power of their paintbrushes, they mythologized the west as wild and untouched by human contact. The politics of Manifest Destiny drove 19th century landscape painters. Colonizers believed it was the fate of white Americans to settle the American west. Informed by notions of white supremacy, ideologies of racial inferiority and of “civilized” behavior, the Europeans saw First Nations as subordinate undeveloped identities. (Cannon 2012). This view justified the eraser of an Indigenous presence from the depictions of the lands they inhabited.

A famous painting by Bierstadt called Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, is a portrayal of an aesthetic landscape, one that effectively excludes the presence of Indigenous peoples. Bierstadt’s painting is a component of the colonial establishment. The use of aesthetic in his work effectively obliterates the importance and existence of Indigenous peoples and their preceding presence (Swanson 2012). Instead of altering truths about Indigenous culture, as Catlin did in his paintings, many of the European artists who were set to paint the cultural landscape chose to completely ignore the presence of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous cultures have been compressed with the advancement of colonialism, influenced in part by recognized art historians.

In order to counter the eraser of an Indigenous presence, Monkman studied 19th century landscape painters like Bierstadt, gradually working their techniques into his own artistic style (Hannon 2011). In this way, Monkman is able to illustrate the exact same landscape, while at the same time re-telling the story of colonization by adding in forgotten aspects. The result is a visual conflation, as the techniques used by artists like Bierstadt become the means for depicting Monkman’s contemporary scenes. By skillfully adopting their painterly techniques, Monkman challenges historical art works and their contorted interpretations of the past (Mason 2012).

Monkman’s painting, Trappers of Men, effectively points to the inaccuracies of Bierstadt’s landscape painting. Although Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California and Trappers of Men appear almost exactly the same, the differences between the two are evident upon analysis. As a whole, the Indigenous saw the land as a place of worship and ancestry. This is strikingly different from the economic values placed on property by the Europeans. Kent Monkman observes this disparity as he expresses,

Even while these two cultural groups may be looking at the same image, a European may see the shining light between clouds of God himself, while a First Nations person would see a different landscape all together: their ancestors in the mountains, the sun and moon their planets. To Indigenous cultures, the land told stories of the past and guided peoples through the present. Spirits were thought to live within nature, whispering winds like the voices of their ancestors (Clinning 2015).

By placing Indigenous peoples in Monkman’s portrayal of the landscape, he effectively reclaims an Indigenous presence, and the significance of land to Indigenous cultures.

Using the conquerors’ tools to his advantage, Monkman claims the landscape as his own territory, “free of the borders of time and space, where he is the master of his own history” (Swanson 2012). Miss Chief stands strong in the centre of Monkman’s landscape painting, exerting full control of the pictorial space, as she always does, while other Indigenous peoples fill the canvas. All the towering mountains may dwarf her, but it is evident that she is supremely confident, and that the people surrounding her feel comfortable (Hannon 2011). Monkman’s painting illuminates the hidden violence and social dysfunction faced by today’s Indigenous peoples as a result of the compression of their cultural presence upon settlement (Brooks 2014).

Drawn in to the beauty of large blooming waterfalls, tall whispering trees, and endless fertile fields of economic prosperity and opportunity, the sublime landscapes portrayed in the 19th century put the viewer into a state of desire for American potential and expansion of beautiful lands. The use aesthetic assisted in fostering the ideals of American colonialism at a time aimed at geographical expansion (Clinning 2015).

Through his own portrayal, Monkman reminds society of how Indigenous peoples were treated throughout this time. Stopping viewers in their tracks, “he imagines a world in which man could undo the devastations of the historical record, and re-tell an account that is more inclusive, more moral, and more truthful” (Clinning 2015).

Thomas King, one of Canada’s master trickster storytellers writes, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. While we cannot change history, we can change, subvert, and dismantle the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories that are told about us” (King 2004).

Even when painters like Catlin presented Indigenous peoples through art, he failed to depict their culture realistically. Native lives and identities continue to be shaped by the colonial power structure, as it existed in the 19th century. Monkman effectively creates his own technique and his own aesthetic that speaks universally to the misconceptions of colonization and the very real experiences of Indigenous peoples from the past through to the present (Brooks 2014). Monkman succeeds in delivering the message that each viewer has the right and the opportunity to re-create history on their own terms. By exposing a viewer’s trusting relationship to historical art works, he conveys an invaluable lesson: the power is in the paintbrush.


Fig. 1. George Catlin, Catlin Painting the Portrait of Mah-to-tah-pa — Mandan, 1861–1869, 18” x 24” oil on card mounted on paperboard, Paul Mellon Collection, image © 2006 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Fig. 2. Kent Monkman, Study for Artist and Model, 2003, 20” x 24” acrylic on canvas

Fig. 3. Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868, 72” x 120” 1/8, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

Fig. 4. Kent Monkman, Trappers of Men, 2006, 84” x 144” acrylic on canvas, Collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art


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