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Monumental paintings by Kent Monkman unveiled at The Met
Artist Ken Monkman in his Toronto studio on Dec. 9, 2019. Monkman, of mixed Cree and Irish heritage, makes the violence done under European occupation to North America’s first peoples a focus of his work. Aaron Wynia/The New York Times.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Coonskin caps for Christmas! I was a kid in mid-20th-century America. The biggest cultural event I can remember from early childhood was Walt Disney’s gigantically popular “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter” on TV. The first installment of a serial, which debuted on Dec. 15, 1954, it was basically about the exploits of a Tennessee backwoods gun-for-hire, and promoted nostalgia for the days when the Wild West was “won” from indigenous peoples. A verse of the theme song, which was everywhere on the radio, went:

Andy Jackson is our gen’ral’s name

His reg’lar soldiers we’ll put to shame

Them redskin varmints us Volunteers’ll tame

‘Cause we got the guns with the surefire aim

Davy, Davy Crockett, the champion of us all!

Andy Jackson was, of course, Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, whose 1830 signing of the Indian Removal Act led to the Trail of Tears, and whose portrait now hangs, at the request of the 45th and sitting president, in the Oval Office of the White House.

All this came back to mind when I saw “The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikosiwak (Wooden Boat People)” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The second in a continuing series of contemporary works sponsored by the Met, it consists of two monumental new paintings by Canadian artist Kent Monkman, installed on either side of the museum’s main entrance in the soaring Great Hall.

The paintings are pretty stupendous. Each measuring almost 11 by 22 feet, they are multifigured narratives inspired by a Euro-American tradition of history painting but entirely present-tense in theme and tone. And both are unmistakably polemical, suggesting that with this and other commissions — an earlier one, sculptures by Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu, is still in place on the museum’s Fifth Avenue facade — certain winds of change could be blowing through the Met’s art-temple precincts.

Monkman, 54, is one of Canada’s best-known contemporary artists, and one who has stirred controversy on his home ground. Of mixed Cree and Irish heritage, he has made the violence done under European occupation, to North America’s first peoples, a central subject of his work.

But he has also, crucially, flipped a conventional, disempowering idea of native victimhood on its head.

His paintings, done in a crisply realistic, highly detailed, somewhat cut-and-paste illustrational style, are far from grim. In many of them, humor and erotic, usually homoerotic, fantasy have an important role. So does the image of the artist himself in the guise of his alter ego, a buff, cross-dressing, gender-fluid tribal leader named Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Updating the figure of the “berdache,” a transsexual figure traditional in indigenous cultures, and channeling Cher in her “Half Breed” phase, Miss Chief is an avatar of a global future that will see humankind moving beyond the wars of identity — racial, sexual, political — in which it is now perilously immersed.

The most radical aspect of his work in the context of the Met — an “encyclopedic” museum thoroughly Western in attitude — is that it presents a view of art history through the eyes of the Other, in this case Native Americans and people of Canada’s First Nations. The shift in cultural positioning begins with the exhibition title. Mistikosiwak, or Wooden Boat People, was a Cree name for European settlers arriving in what is now North America.

One of the two paintings, “Welcoming the Newcomers,” depicts such an arrival, with native people greeting strangers at the Atlantic shore. But the scene is less a reception than a rescue. A capsized boat is visible in the distance. The newcomers are exhausted swimmers who’ve barely made it to land: an English “pilgrim” in a buckled stovepipe hat; an enslaved black man, shackles on his arms; a missionary clutching a crucifix; an impoverished Frenchwoman sent abroad to help populate the New World. All are being pulled from the water by native inhabitants, led by Miss Chief. Old stereotypes — fearless pioneers, hostile natives — are banished.

And with them go other clichés. Several of the painting’s indigenous figures are based on examples of 19th-century art in the Met’s collection. Among them are sculptures like “Mexican Girl Dying” by Thomas Crawford (1846), on view in the museum’s American Wing, and paintings like Eugène Delacroix’s “The Natchez,” in the 19th- and early 20th-century European galleries. Each of the originals perpetuates the myth of the Native Americans as a vanishing people, doomed to disappear, a fiction that usefully underpinned and fueled another myth, that of Western “Manifest Destiny.”

In Monkman’s paintings, indigenous people are, for the most part, proactive figures, shaping the world around them, which doesn’t mean he ignores the catastrophes that followed the European occupation. When Monkman appropriates Henry Inman’s 1830s portrait of Eagle of Delight, also named Hayne Hudjihini, a native woman noted for her beauty, he marks her chest and shoulders with traces of measles, the imported disease from which she died. And when he depicts the figure of a child apparently sick and dying in his mother’s arms, he lifts the figure from a painting of “The Massacre of the Innocents” by European artist Francois Joseph Navez.

Monkman’s image of the child — a reference to the damage done by the forced placement of indigenous children in white-run boarding schools — appears in the second Met-commissioned painting, “Resurgence of the People.” Here we are in an imagined future. Centuries have passed since “Welcoming the Newcomers.” Terrible things have happened to the planet. The only remaining bit of solid earth is an island guarded by armed white nationalists and soon to be submerged by a churning oil-slicked sea.

Indigenous people now command an open boat, of a kind familiar from contemporary news photos of refugees. People rescued in the first painting are now rescuers themselves, pulling in and tending to whoever swims toward them, including a white businessman wearing a chunky gold watch and Hermès tie. All of the boat’s rowers are indigenous; more than half are women dressed in contemporary traditional styles, their skin ornamented with symbolic tattoos.

And once again Miss Chief presides over all, leads the way forward. Nude except for high heels and filmy salmon-colored wrap, she’s modeled on the title figure in Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” one of the Met’s most popular American art attractions.

The effect is simultaneously loopy and moving, the way extreme theater can be. Both Monkman pictures are, indeed, based on a form of theater. They’re painted from photographs of models posing in elaborately staged tableaus in the artist’s Toronto studio. The studio itself, which I visited recently, is run like a classic atelier, with several hands contributing to a final product. Monkman prepares initial drawings and stage-directs the photographic sessions. Several young painters, whom he has trained, then execute the final image in acrylic on canvas, to which he adds finishing touches, sometimes extensive. (Nor is his work necessarily finished when a painting is. He also appears in related performances as Miss Chief, live and on film.)

Even in the Met’s two-story-high Great Hall, the two pictures read clearly, vividly, particularly “Resurgence of the People” with its more organic composition, toothsome colors, and skillfully managed use of painted light. The high positioning — both pictures hang above eye level, over the museum’s checkrooms — means that telling details (many of the indigenous faces in “Resurgence” are tender, taken-from life portraits) can be hard to see. But the tonal slipperiness of Monkman’s art, with its compound of anger and absurdity, social realism and serious camp, comes through.

With this commission, which the artist conceived in consultation with Sheena Wagstaff, chairwoman of the Met’s department of modern and contemporary art, and Randall Griffey, a curator in the department, the Met seems to be taking some steps toward a kind of in-the-present political engagement that it has rarely made in the past, and that, realistically, cannot be ducked in the pro-nationalist, anti-Other neo-1950s cultural moment we’re in.

If the museum intends to sustain this engagement, as seems likely under its current director, Max Hollein, commissioned projects like this one (and Mutu’s) are one way to go, leaving trophy displays of celebrity collectibles to art fairs.

“I want to make the contemporary feel historic and the historic feel contemporary,” Monkman said in a 2017 interview for the Toronto Globe and Mail. That’s an excellent goal for the Met to shoot for, too.

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