It’s a rare rainy day in late August and Kent Monkman and his team of young apprentices are putting the finishing touches on a suite of paintings that will soon grace the walls of the Royal Ontario Museum.
For now, many are resting on crates of milk or sitting at an angle in a corner of his studio, a squat building in an unremarkable part of Toronto. Neighbors probably don’t realize that this former factory is now occupied by one of Canada’s most renowned painters.
Monkman points to a tiny distorted star in a large painting of the cosmos. One of his assistants tears off a piece of green tape and sticks it to the wobbly star. It will need to be edited. But not necessarily by Monkman himself. He entrusts a handful of painters – from social networks and from the best art schools in Canada – to help him carry out his work. It’s a practice that dates back to the Renaissance and was adopted by contemporaries such as Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei. (Although it’s not without its detractors.)
A few feet away, two of Monkman’s assistants sit in front of a near-finished painting, brushes in hand, their eyes flicking between the canvas and a few mounted iPads. A chihuahua dozes at their feet. Monkman always does his rounds. On goes another piece of tape. An earring on Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, the Cree artist’s time-traveling two-spirit alter ego, doesn’t quite shine as it should. Monkman’s longtime creative director hoped the job would now be done, but his boss doesn’t seem worried. They are close.
The 56-year-old’s new exhibit, Being Legendary, comes at a turning point in Canadian history. The discovery of unmarked graves on boarding school grounds last year forced the country to confront its dark past like never before. It’s a judgment the Winnipeg-born painter has been waiting for years. One of the most memorable works in Monkman’s 2017 exhibition Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience – a response to Canada’s 150th birthday – depicts Mounties and priests snatching Indigenous children from their mothers’ arms.
The residential school system also served as the driving force behind Monkman’s collaboration with the ROM. But in the end, this topic was whittled down to just one chapter in the expansive exposition, which follows Miss Chief through history, starting with “the beginning of it all”. The idea was to portray colonization in a way that felt proportionate, “a brief jab in this long, long timeline.”
“I didn’t want the colonial project to take precedence over the conversation. That’s part of it, but it’s not all,” he said. “We don’t want to be defined by colonialism.”
Monkman became known for unflinchingly portraying the relationship between colonizer and subjugated, often reversing the script of famous Western paintings in ways that empowered his native subjects while humiliating their colonial counterparts.
Being legendary avoids this juxtaposition. Instead, Monkman celebrates the age-old connection Indigenous peoples have with the natural world, using traditional Cree cosmology to tell this story. When conceptualizing the project, he consulted Cree elders, archaeologists and astronomers.
“It’s about getting people to really think about how long we’ve been here and how much Indigenous knowledge is spilling out in all directions,” said Monkman, who is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation at the Manitoba. “There is a tendency to dismiss Aboriginal stories as folkloric, but within those stories is knowledge.”
The exhibit features neon-colored dinosaurs wearing robes, psychedelic-looking space scenes, and often the mîmîkwîsiwak – tiny ancient beings drawn from Cree mythology. Specific items from the ROM’s collection, such as preserved dinosaur fossils and moccasins, were also introduced. To whom these moccasins originally belonged, no one can guess.
“Yet we know who the individual is who brought them to the museum,” Monkman said. “Were they stolen? Have they been bought? We do not know. Many of the objects held by the ROM should “probably be repatriated”, he added.
Being Legendary ends with a series of portraits of Indigenous leaders: political, linguistic and environmental activists, social workers, filmmakers, jingle dancers, knowledge keepers. The idea of Wâsê-Acâhkosak, which means “shining stars” in Cree, was born out of the heated debate over monuments to colonial figures in Canada. It was something Murray Sinclair said that struck a chord with Monkman.
“Let’s not be the ones to shoot them down, because that will only bring more negativity our way,” said Monkman, the former Ojibway senator and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Let us instead build monuments to our own people.”
“Kent Monkman: Being Legendary” will open October 8 and run through March 19, 2023.