Kent Monkman’s “Being Legendary” exhibit at the ROM

Cree artist Kent Monkman’s exhibition Being Legendary, to be presented at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) from October 8 to March 23, 2023, plays with concepts of foundational myths, narrative biases and repatriation.

The ambitious installation features a series of 35 figurative paintings situated amid cultural belongings from the museum’s extensive permanent collection that recontextualize history from an Indigenous perspective.

“I am exploring how Indigenous presence and knowledge is embedded in this land much longer and deeper than how it’s been presented in the colonial version of history here on Turtle Island,” said Monkman. “Using storytelling, this exhibition refers to the interruption of knowledge caused by the colonial attempts to erase us, but it also talks about life before Europeans arrived and how leaders in our communities shine a path for us to move forward into the future.”

The Royal Alberta Museum announced it would return to the Plains Cree the pâpâmihaw asinîy or Creator Stone just before his exhibit opens. It’s a meteorite shaped like a buffalo head that holds spiritual power and great meaning for the Cree. Monkman was thrilled by the synchronicity of this repatriation, as it had once been part of the ROM’s collection.

Monkman has sought to create change from within by serving on the boards of Toronto’s Gardiner Museum and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, helping to shift the narrative and challenge settler artistic conventions.

As in many of Monkman’s earlier works, his gender-fluid alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle plays a prominent role in this exhibit, serving as flamboyant interpreter and subversive witness of its various sections that span from pre-colonial times to the present and beyond. Her origin story came into sharper focus when working on her “memoirs” with longtime collaborator Gisèle Gordon.

“Miss Chief was created to inhabit a more empowered understanding of Indigenous gender identities and sexuality,” Monkman explained to The Art Newspaper. “In old Cree there were no words to distinguish gender because it just didn’t matter. The Miss Chief character was born out of this desire to reverse the gaze and say, ‘Hey, as much as you’re looking at us, we’re looking at you.’”

With tongue-in-cheek delivery, the opening paintings position Miss Chief within Indigenous cosmology as one of the universe’s creative spirits, juxtaposed with an actual meteorite from the ROM collection, explaining, “When I fell to askîy – this planet you call Earth – my form shifted from pure matter to cloud, to rain sprinkled with cosmic dust, and love.”

While the glamorous Miss Chief has provocatively appeared alongside colonialists in Monkman’s previous works, notably his Shame and Prejudice exhibition, she reached a whole new audience when featured in two massive works commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2019.

Coming from the Fisher River Cree Nation in Treaty 5 territory in Manitoba, Monkman was an abstract expressionist painter when he began creating art in the 1990s. When he turned to a representational style, drawing from European masters like Peter Paul Rubens and the portraiture of Paul Kane and George Catlin, it was to communicate themes with more directness and urgency.

“It’s cool to watch when people engage with the work because at first, they think they’re seeing one thing but then it’s the opposite,” explained Monkman. “I’m using a similar medium to the painters of Western art history but communicating a worldview that is radically different to the original that I’m drawing inspiration from.”

In another of Being Legendary’s paintings, iridescent dinosaurs are interspersed with tiny sparkling mîmîkwîsiwak people nearby an actual horned dinosaur skull, a mastodon’s upper arm bone and a mammoth tooth. Monkman wanted to make a statement about what Indigenous children are taught about the fossils extracted from their lands, which expanded to consider the vast field of Indigenous science embedded in Cree language and culture.

“One of the big attractions at ROM are the dinosaur fossils,” Monkman noted. “I wanted to talk about the interruption of the knowledge that Indigenous children were taught by their ancestors, which began in the colonial period. We have stories that talk about one of the mass extinctions, the receding of the glaciers – there’s science in these stories.”

The show’s colourful first half represents a happy pre-colonial land, living in harmony with nature and guided by matriarch wisdom. That tone shifts abruptly with “Study for the Sparrow”, which conveys the bleakness of residential schools with a young girl trying to reach a bird through a caged window in a room barren except for a crucifix.

Another room depicts Miss Chief comforting the Indigenous children of Battleford Industrial School in Saskatchewan as they are forced to witness the unjust hanging of eight Indigenous men in 1885. Next to eight pairs of moccasins from the ROM collection, made by Cree and Assiniboine artists “once known” over a century ago, are small paintings representing eight losses: language, knowledge, family, medicine, ceremony, tradition, joy and hope.

When Monkman began discussions with the ROM in 2017, he wanted this exhibit to address the institution’s lack of pieces related to colonialism. However, over time this part of the narrative grew smaller as he wanted visitors to realize colonialism doesn’t define Indigenous people but is rather “a short blip on this long timeline of our presence here.”

The final room looks toward a brighter future with a dozen large-scale portraits of contemporary Indigenous leaders, including Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, co-founder of Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, Inuk filmmaker and artist Asinnajaq, and Indigenous star expert Wilfred Buck (Pawaminikititicikiw).

“It was an opportunity to take this idea of Indigenous portraiture and really honour and canonize my heroes, the people who I’ve met that are doing incredible work, young and old, and from diverse backgrounds,” said Monkman. “They’re all doing incredible things in their own way. That’s why I call that series ‘Shining Stars’. This is our way forward.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation