Culture  Humour as defiance

She’s mounted side-saddle on an enormous alligator, chest bare, dark hair fluttering in the breeze, feet adorned with strappy, high-heeled sandals in a fetching shade of periwinkle. The figure raises a feather to the sky, face inscrutable as she stares into the distance. She holds court over a baroque, diverse tangle of figures: a basketball player, a British soldier, a mermaid that might be Marilyn Monroe, and a few other half-clad First Nations people of ambiguous gender identity. This is Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, alter-ego of the man who painted her: the half-Cree artist, performer, and filmmaker Kent Monkman.

Miss Chief inhabits many facets of Monkman’s work, but in his “Miss America” exhibition at the Pierre-François Oullette Art Contemporain gallery, her presence is largely felt in the eponymous canvas. The gloriously crowded work incorporates a rich and varied array of symbolism, much of it slyly funny. There is cleverly tweaked Christian imagery (a Catholic priest nervously accepting the one-armed embrace of a mohawked warrior), visual gags about cultural appropriation (a canoe that sports the Mercedes logo on its prow), and spliced gender roles galore (a man sporting both a wolf skin hood and a pale lavender parasol). Still other images are nigh impossible to categorize. See the irate businessman’s car: sprawled over the hood is a young man, his pale, sculpted torso pierced with arrows, presumably the sexualized, homoeroticized Saint Sebastian common in Renaissance works. So why is he wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a gun holster? Is that a Chanel logo on his belt buckle? Why is he drowning?

For all his modern subject matter, Monkman draws much of his inspiration from the landscapes of the Hudson River School that flourished in the mid 19th century, citing artists like George Catlin, Paul Kane and Albert Bierstadt. “It was a period of painting in the 19th century where the art really supported the idea of America being like an empty wilderness or an open paradise,” Monk said in a phone interview with The Daily. “And they’re mostly empty with the occasional animal or native person sprinkled throughout. The paintings really forced this idea of a vacant land, which sort of gave me the inspiration to go back into [their] work and to reproduce the paintings as faithfully as I could and then insert my own narrative.”

Another prominent influence is the European Old Masters of the 17th and 18th centuries. Monkman cites their ability to “tell stories with paintings.” Miss America in particular is a nod to the American section of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s 1752 fresco Allegory of the Planets and Continents, but with the perspective turned on its head. “It was the world through the European’s eye in the 18th century, imagining the four continents,” Monkman says. “Of course he had never been to Africa or America, so his paintings are mostly fantasy and I think that’s what really drew me to them: the imagination of the artist, the power of the artist to create his own vision of the world.” In the case of Tiepolo, it is a largely inaccurate vision. “So I wanted to revisit The Four Continents. I wanted to think about a contemporary version of globalism and how consumer culture and corporate culture have impacted indigenous people on the various continents… I wanted to revisit that series of paintings through the aboriginal lens.”

There are, of course, other paintings present. Hidden in the back of the gallery are Apollo and Hyacinth and Achilles and Patroclus, mirror images of a waterfall surrounded by lush greenery, the small figures that lend the works their titles lounging near the bottom. The perpendicular wall displays Winnetou & Shatterhand, characters from a popular 19th century German novels, and Tonto & The Lone Ranger. These are parallel versions of the previous two classical references, imagined in lush HD video, complete with sound effects and live-action portrayals of the characters. The comparison drawn here, between popular white portrayals of Aboriginal peoples and their older, classier character analogs, says more about the creators of the characters than the people they were trying to portray.

If there’s any drawback to the show, it might be the arrangements of the works, perhaps due to the limitations of the space. Miss America, in all its titanic glory, demands the largest wall in the gallery, which just so happens to be the first wall visible upon entry. This has the unfortunate side effect of frontloading the exhibition’s climax, and rendering everything else a bit of a letdown. This isn’t to say that Descent into Amnesia or Flow isn’t on the same level as their flashy sister. No, they’re just a bit quieter, a bit more subtle and narrowly focused. They are certainly not done justice by being drowned out with the cognitive noise of Miss America.

Monkman’s work can be described with an array of descriptors prefixed by “post”: post-colonial, post-modern, maybe even post-heteronormative. It’s commentary on commentary: the Aboriginal view of the white colonialist view of the Aboriginals. It all comes back to Miss Chief, a Zelig-like figure, inserting herself in different cultural and historical contexts, overpowering and seducing the white explorers and cowboys who think they’re in charge of things and offering a knowing, victorious wink to the fourth wall. For a while now, Monkman’s been donning heels, wig, and headdress to allow her to venture into the 3D world during performance art pieces that have appeared all over Canada, and as far as the UK. She has even released her own disco single – “Dance to Miss Chief,” which you can download at kentmonkman.com. Miss Chief is her own unique way of exploring power, sex and the history of the “New World.” “For me it was also about making sex and sexuality something more celebratory and something more empowering,” the artist says of his saucier alternate persona. “I wanted Miss Chief to sort of be a super hero, to triumph over the sexual repression that happened in our cultures.” And really, who could reject the aid of a warrior against injustice when they look that great in fuchsia?

“Miss America” runs to September 22 at the Pierre-Francois Ouellette Art Contemporain at 372 Ste. Catherine O., #216.