Bone on Bone: Kent Monkman at the Gardiner Museum
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Bone on Bone: Kent Monkman at the Gardiner Museum

The provocative indigenous Canadian artist stages a confrontation with history in his largest installation to date.

The Gardiner Museum plays host to artist Kent Monkman’s latest piece, The Rise and Fall of Civilization.

Monkman Mounted

Kent Monkman installation at the Gardiner Museum – photo by Samira Mohyeddin

The Rise and Fall of Civilization, the artist’s largest installation to date, depicts a buffalo jump: a cliff formation which Indigenous peoples historically used in order to hunt and kill bison in large quantities. The exhibit depicts the many-layered clash between Indigenous and European colonial cultures, and its ongoing repercussions.

Atop the nine-foot-high cliff constructed by Monkman are two Picasso-like cubist bison standing, and another mid-jump. Beside them is a sculpture of Monkman’s alter-ego: Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, who wears a red flowing dress and perfectly applied, fire-engine red lipstick.

Monkman created the recurring alter-ego for many reasons, but cites the forgotten openness of Indigenous culture towards gender fluidity for its revivification.

“I wanted to show that two-spirited people had a prominent place in our society, and that with colonization, also came the rigid and imposed sexuality of the colonizer,” says Monkman.

At the bottom of the cliff are smashed ceramics that reference the bones that would often be found at buffalo jump sites, but which also highlight the site-specific irony of the installation itself—in a museum that houses approximately 300 pieces of ceramic tableware made of bone china from the 19th century. Unlike the Indigenous peoples, who used nearly the entire animal for clothing, food and shelter, European settlers would kill the bison largely for its pelts. Often, its bones would be ground to make bone china.

The site of the installation acts as a reminder of Monkman’s own difficult relationship with museums and how his work is layered with intersections of history and cultures, clashing and jostling for position both in his life and in his art.

Of Cree and Irish ancestry, he spoke of the anger and anguish he felt when he would leave the Manitoba Museum after school trips in Winnipeg.

“Inside the museum were dioramas of a static representation of Indigenous culture, and outside were the skid row streets of Winnipeg, where Indigenous peoples were often drunk and homeless,” says Monkman.

Monkman is hyper aware of the often problematic and paradoxical history at play in museums, one that has directly exoticized Indigenous culture while also obscuring it.

Monkman’s installation speaks to his own personal artistic history—through the mounting of the national tragedy of settlers erasing the Indigenous way of life.

“There was a deliberate amnesia and erasure of Indigenous culture and forced assimilation through the decimation of the bison population,” says Monkman.

At the feet of one of Monkman’s haunting and hollowed-out bison, among the smashed ceramic pieces, sits a ceramic plate that was allowed to remain intact. It’s emblazoned with the words ‘Winnipeg Centennial,’ in reference to a lower-income neighbourhood whose population is 40 per cent Aboriginal, and which has one of the highest crime rates in all of Canada. It also reminds the spectator of the troubled history of the city itself.

It is hard to escape history in this installation. But rather than only hammer home the idea that Indigenous peoples have suffered at the hands of settlers, Monkman also displays how European art and culture was directly influenced by the same culture they tried so desperately to eradicate.

By using Picasso’s sculptures and specifically his “11 stages of the bull” lithographs as a jumping off point, Monkman again shows the cyclical interconnectedness and influence of Indigenous art on European artists.

As concisely as Picasso captures the bull, Monkman also provides an honest and exacting visual language through which these intertwined histories can be felt and makes the Gardiner Museum home to his own diorama, directed by Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, who returns and reverses the gaze of the colonizer.

This is mandatory viewing.

The Rise and Fall of Civilization opens on October 15, 2015 to January 10, 2016