The Cree artist Kent Monkman stood under the soaring ceiling of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Great Hall this week wielding a laser pointer. With its beam, he indicated historical characters on the huge canvas behind him, stopping briefly on the figure of a beaver with an olive branch in its mouth as he decoded his latest painting for the assembled media. Europeans came to this continent seeking beaver pelts, he reminded them.
Toronto-resident Monkman, a member of Manitoba’s Fisher River Band, is one of a trio of international artists given an unusual assignment by America’s pre-eminent museum: The Met has asked them to address its encyclopedic collection by creating new art for its most prominent spaces. So, in the museum’s vast but always bustling front hall, Monkman takes the bull by the horns with a pair of canvases that cleverly appropriate Western history painting to expose romantic myths about Indigenous people. He is asking the Met and its many visitors to confront North America’s murderous colonial history – as Canada tries exporting Indigenous perspectives and the hope of reconciliation to the United States.
Borrowing the heroic poses and dramatic expressions from history paintings in the Met’s collection, Monkman calls his project mistikosiwak (Wooden Boat People), extending the Cree word for the French to include, by implication, all European settlers. The work is a diptych, depicting the arrival of Europeans in North America on the left and the resilience of contemporary Indigenous culture on the right. The first painting features a group of shipwrecked Europeans clambering onto a rocky shore where Indigenous characters variously welcome or repulse them. The second shows a boat paddled by contemporary Indigenous figures while two African-Americans pull white people from the water as though rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean. On a rock in the distance, armed men flash the white-power symbol and wave their guns.
These paintings, created by a team of 10 painters under Monkman’s direction and based on photo shoots that employed about 40 models and actors, represent the artist’s increasingly sophisticated deployment of a revisionist history painting. As he resurrects the genre once considered the pinnacle of Western art before it was displaced by modernism, he exposes 19th-century history painting’s assumptions about North America as an empty continent ready for exploitation and Indigenous people as a noble but tragically disappearing breed.
”Here is this incredible vocabulary that I felt could be very relevant to speak about Indigenous experience both historical and contemporary,” he said in an interview at the Met this week. “It has been a way for me to engage with a very complex and sophisticated language of image-making and it ties into those themes of erasure that were present in the 19th-century [art]. Those themes have been supported and upheld by museums because they canonized that work.”
But no longer. As Monkman unveiled his paintings in a symbolically charged place – the entry point to the Met’s sprawling, global collection at the heart of a city that is a magnet for both tourists and migrants – Met leaders talked about the need to expand the stories the museum tells.
“Museums can no longer maintain a position of neutrality,” said Sheena Wagstaff, head of the Met’s modern and contemporary art department, as she launched into a rare land acknowledgement: Manhattan is Manahatta and traditional territory of the Lenape or Delaware nation.
As part of the current contemporary project, the Met has also mounted four striking female bronze figures by the Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu in niches on the façade of its 1902 Beaux Arts building, the first time art has ever been placed there. The third participant in this program is the Icelandic multidisciplinary artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who mounted an immersive video installation in the courtyard of the museum’s Robert Lehman wing last summer.
Both of Monkman’s paintings in the Great Hall include something of a self-portrait: The central figure of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, the artist’s gender-fluid trickster alter ego (whose memoir he is currently writing.) In the first painting, she is the one figure who looks directly at you as Monkman turns the tables on viewers of Western art, subjecting them to the Indigenous gaze. In the second painting, she stands at the prow of the boat, her pose directly borrowed from that of George Washington in the Met’s most popular American painting: Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Monkman continuously adapts and undercuts these historical antecedents. He takes Eugène Delacroix’s The Natchez, in which the French artist depicted a Natchez couple and their new-born baby as the last of their kind, and purges the painting of its melancholic irony. Monkman’s first painting shows the couple joyfully welcoming new life; in the second, the parents are two women. Similarly, the figure of Mexican Girl Dying, a 19th-century sculpture by the American artist Thomas Crawford, has become a woman who appears to be in the throes of orgasm rather than death. Meanwhile, a group of Indigenous children in the boat was inspired by the biblical subject The Massacre of the Innocents, but their cropped hair is a reference to the residential schools where they were forced to assimilate.
More than three metres high and almost seven metres wide, the paintings are not Monkman’s largest; that honour still belongs to Miss Chief’s Wet Dream in the collection of the Nova Scotia Art Gallery. But they do represent his most sophisticated work yet. Where once the politics of his interventions might seem obvious – for Canada 150, he simply inserted Miss Chief into a familiar painting of the Fathers of Confederation – here his mastery of the Met’s collection lifts his art. The result is a complex iconography stuffed with references to historic art, Indigenous culture and contemporary politics as Monkman beats Western history painting at its own game.
Initiated by Met curator Randall Griffey, mistikosiwak has developed into a stealthy Canadian attempt to insert Indigenous perspectives deeper into the American cultural consciousness, long dominated by the troubled legacy of slavery.
“In Canada, museums are further ahead in engaging with Indigenous perspectives,” Monkman said. “There’s a huge difference: They are about a generation behind here. It’s a big moment for the Met to offer diversified perspectives.”
That was part of what attracted contributions from Canadian philanthropists Rosamond Ivey, and Marilyn and Charles Baillie, all of whom were already supporters of the Met and helped finance this project.
“It was a huge opportunity for Kent’s career and recognition for Canada’s artistic community,” Ivey said. “And the message is not really Canadian, it’s North American.”
The first of the millions who will see the paintings over the next four months got a look Tuesday as the media took their leave and the Met’s massive front doors opened to the public. The paintings hang immediately overhead at the coat-check queues, so visitors have plenty of time to consider them. Some began debating their merits and pointing out figures to each other from below. Others gazed up in silence, seemingly amazed.
mistikosiwak (Wooden Boat People) is on show at The Metropolitan Museum in New York until April 9.
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How Kent Monkman works
The chaotic joy of Art Fight – The Verge
In the summer of 2017, I was stuck between high school and college and stuck between two versions of myself. There was the high school version of me, someone with a laser focus on traditional academic success, and the college version of myself, a mystery that burst with the potential to do and create outside of the box that I had formed around myself.
It started with a simple DM — something along the lines of “this seems fun; you should join it also!” When I clicked the link, I saw a dizzying array of character designs laid out in tidy rows, filling the homepage of the site. It was overwhelming, not just because so many people had joined this site but also because they had shared so many stories and characters. The characters were technicolor and sparkling, with lengthy backstories included with their pictures. There was so much passion, and I was being invited to join them.
Art Fight is a fairly simple concept. For the month of July, artists register on the site and are divided into teams. Once registered and sorted, they upload examples of their art along with personal characters and stories of their own that they would be interested in other people drawing. Then, the games begin.
You score points in Art Fight by drawing another team’s requests, called an “attack” in the lingo of the game. The more complex the request, the higher the score, and at the end of the month, the team with the most points gets a special badge on the site showing they’ve won. There’s no reward beyond the badge, and nobody is too strict about the teams. Individuals can change teams multiple times over the course of the month. The real incentive isn’t winning but, rather, drawing for others and being drawn in turn.
I was an amateur artist at the time and had spent very little time creating a social media profile and promoting my art. But even then, it was exciting to know I could draw for others and know they would be excited to draw back. Something about this space was welcoming to people of all skill levels and meant that I wasn’t lost in the digital noise.
In the following years, the time that I spent on Art Fight waxed and waned based on the business of my own summers. But each year, I made sure to draw at least one piece for it, taking the lovingly rendered illustration that another artist had made of their character and granting it life in my own art style. It remained a constant, this act of creating for someone else that I likely did not know.
The other constant was the range of other artists that used the platform. Some were students or hobby artists, drawing in the free time that they had on weekends or after work. Others were professional artists, pulling together attacks as breaks from their own work. What remained true was the range of people that Art Fight encompassed, with individuals from almost any walk of life with an interest in character design and storytelling coming together to share their creations.
Back in the summer of 2017, I hadn’t realized quite how special that was. Wedged in among my career aspirations and life goals, my art often feels pushed to the background, something that can’t be properly pursued unless it has a “purpose” (usually involving money). Having a space where that creation is encouraged and given a community, for any skill level and with few caveats, still feels exhilarating.
For the artists I know, sharing online can be a mixed blessing. Platforms offer reach but they can feel actively hostile, putting artists at the whims of algorithms and mainstream attention. There are few platforms actively devoted to art and even fewer constructed to make artists feel more comfortable. The result can feel alienating, forcing creators to post constantly to stay relevant rather than follow their own inspiration.
Art Fight, for me, is a balm to that. Even for a hobbyist artist like me, there is something exciting about individuals making art for each other without the caveats of platforms or the frantic scramble to be seen. It is a challenge that asks only for what you want to give to it rather than what the platform wants. For that reason, the month of July is a sanctuary — a place to create on my terms with the knowledge that it will still be seen by others and maybe be special to some of them.
Camille Butera is a Master of Science student at Oxford University and a recent graduate of Smith College. Outside of that, you can find her drawing and catching up on TV shows about five years after everyone else.
Downtown gateway art project gets initial green light – CollingwoodToday.ca
Council has given initial approval for the Collingwood Downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA) to proceed in a public art process for a gateway feature for the downtown.
During Monday’s strategic initiatives standing committee meeting, council voted in favour of proceeding with a gateway feature, with a focus on the feature being an integrated public art installation anchoring the downtown core.
“Art is in the beholder. We follow a process. Some may disagree with the process. We’re voting on a process today, not a piece of art,” said Hull. “When it’s installed, and people don’t like it – you voted for the process.”
Based on a plan proposed and approved by the BIA board, the process for the public art gateway feature would follow the town’s public art policy, and would begin with planning by an ad-hoc committee to come up with a budget and theme with an invitation to the community to participate on the committee.
During Monday’s meeting, BIA general manager Sue Nicholson noted that the theme is currently under discussion.
“Working through the public process, I think the theme is ‘What has built this downtown,’” said Nicholson. “The shipbuilding, the rail that basically created this community. These themes will help shape what this piece of art looks like.”
Later, there would be a call to artists, a selection process with interviews, and, ultimately, the installation of the piece. A public art working group selected for the project would include town staff, BIA, community members, and representatives from the Collingwood Museum, the historical society, and the Blue Mountain Foundation for the Arts.
The BIA’s goal is to move quickly through the process to have a final design and artist contracted by the end of January 2023.
The project would be funded by a $215,000 federal grant which must be used for beautification of the downtown before March 31, 2023. If not used by that date, the BIA would lose the federal funding.
Coun. Deb Doherty said she was in support of the recommendation.
“I applaud the BIA board for having taken a very negative assessment of their original proposal and gone back to the drawing board and come back with a very creative approach that I hope will be a win-win for the town, residents and the BIA,” said Doherty.
The original proposed archway project was presented to council in early March 2022. The design showed two tall poles with a black metal archway spanning Hurontario Street at the intersection with First Street/Huron Street. On the arch were white letters reading “Historic Downtown Collingwood” on one side and “Historic Harbourfront Collingwood,” on the other. The idea, according to the BIA, was to help people find the downtown and encourage them to turn onto Hurontario Street.
The proposal was immediately and vehemently rejected by public opinion. Letters to CollingwoodToday.ca decried it as an eyesore and the BIA received dozens of emails and submissions opposing the design and concept of an archway in the downtown.
A public survey put out by the town in April received nearly twice as many responses as the 2022 town budget survey with 727 responses to the archway survey and 529 of them (72.8 per cent) against an archway altogether.
Town council was also bombarded with opposition from residents culminating to a meeting on May 30 when Mayor Keith Hull (then acting mayor) said he was surprised by the ferocity of the response to the archway.
At the May 30 meeting, council told the BIA and town staff to go back to the drawing board to find a different way to spend the $215,000 federal grant.
Nicholson’s proposal to use the town’s Public Art Policy to commission a gateway feature that is not an arch is in response to council’s May order.
On Monday, not all councillors were in favour of the proposal.
“I feel this is contrary to our sign bylaw. I feel it is contrary to our heritage conservation district. It’s almost as if this is a sign project in the guise of art,” said Coun. Chris Carrier. “I think art is art – let art be the anchor as opposed to wrapping it in the envelope of signage.”
“This is almost like another kick at the can we had before,” he added. “I think the public rejected it not because they were misunderstanding the finances, but because they didn’t want an arch.”
The committee voted 6-1 in favour of proceeding with the public art process, with Carrier opposed. Coun. Bob Madigan declared a conflict on the matter and didn’t participate in discussions as he is a BIA member.
The decision will need to be ratified at the next meeting of council before going into effect.
With files from Erika Engel.
How this local arts group is making art accessible in Calgary – CBC.ca
The corner of 8th ave and 1st street bustled with colour, music and dancing last week at The Alcove’s Hip-Hop Showcase, one of their several pop-up events this summer.
“Hip-hop really brings people from different ethnicities, different races together, in ways that other spaces don’t,” said MC GoodMedicine who feels these spaces allow people to be authentic and tell their story.
These pop-ups by The Alcove Centre for Arts are an attempt to showcase how a physical recreational facility for the arts could benefit the community in many ways. This non-profit group is dedicated to making art more accessible by providing workshops and platforms to support local artists.
“We have so many hidden gems here, and these workshops are helping pass down the knowledge to the youth,” said Ryan De Guzman a.k.a Rubix, a local rapper.
“I believe Calgary’s still young, kind of like in its pre-teens…but we are growing and have the potential to be like Montreal,” Guzman said as he reflected on the arts scene and its future in the city.
The first half of the showcase was a spray paint and street art workshop led by Anthony Russell who provided guidance on colour theory, spray can control, letter structure and style. After the formal instruction, the space welcomed a collaborative community mural, facilitated by a graffiti trio, Spreason. Attendees and community members had the opportunity to spray paint their own name tags to this four by eight foot mural.
CBC Calgary was on location with canvases, custom CBC stencils and paint supplies, for aspiring and professional artists to express themselves. While some captured yellow and orange gradients of a sunrise, others were inspired by bright patterns, and even monochrome palettes.
The showcase was aimed to be “for the community, from the community and by the community.” The workshops were made possible in partnership with the Calgary Downtown Association and the venue was a collaborative effort by University of Calgary’s faculties of Social Work and School of Creative and Performing Arts.
The Alcove is hosting a multicultural themed arts showcase on August 27 and once again, CBC Calgary will be on-site to creatively stimulate conversations about art, community and more.
The chaotic joy of Art Fight – The Verge
Downtown gateway art project gets initial green light – CollingwoodToday.ca
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