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Museums and Archives (67-70)

SHIFTING THE FOCUS: Cree art star Kent Monkman’s exhibition ‘Being Legendary’ opens at the ROM

October 5, 2022
Striking portraits of Métis, Inuit and First Nations people line the walls. They are a response to the years-long, heated discussion over the fate of colonial statues. ANDREW F RANCIS WALLACE PHOTOS TORONTO STAR

Toronto Star: A week before Cree art star Kent Monkman’s formidable new exhibition, “Being Legendary,” opens Saturday at the Royal Ontario Museum, an incredible thing happened. The Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton announced it will finally return a sacred object to the Plains Cree after 20 years of negotiations between the provincial government and the First Nation.

The pâpâmihaw asinîy or Creator Stone as it’s known (among several other names), is a meteorite shaped uncannily like a buffalo head, which holds spiritual power and great meaning for the Cree. It was stolen more than 150 years ago by a zealous Christian missionary trying to dampen its power, and has been housed at the Edmonton museum since 1972 — before which time it resided in the ROM’s collection.

The circularity is striking. For “Being Legendary,” which features 35 new figurative paintings, Monkman has integrated items from the ROM’s extensive permanent collection, both as imagery and as physical objects. In one corner, there is a plinth with an empty redvelvet display indented as if a miniature version of the Creator Stone once laid there, its ghostly weight still pressing against the form. The text on the wall directly calls for the return of not just the pâpâmihaw asinîy, but other sacred items held in museums, “especially the bones in this basement.”

Monkman was thrilled by the news and its timing. “This is a piece of this greater story and the synchronicity is amazing,” he says, four days before the opening. “It’s a really important part of this narrative and this connection to the ROM specifically, because the Creator Stone was actually held in their collection for a period of time.”

The serendipitous announcement calls to mind the intervening power of Monkman’s long-time alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, a glamorous trickster character who seeks to correct colonial accounts of Indigenous history. Miss Chief, in her Manolo Blahniks and Louis Vuitton accessories, is our gorgeous gender-fluid, musclebound guide through “Being Legendary,” starting with the opening room dedicated to her origin story.

Entering a room painted in shades of celestial cobalt with sparkling pricks of gems on the walls, we learn that Miss Chief comes from pâkwan kîsik, “the hole in the sky that connects this world to another behind the Seven Sisters, the stars some of you call the Pleiades.” Two paintings depict a navy sky, laced with cotton-candy clouds and flying rainbow-hued pterosaurs or piye siwak, from which Miss Chief fell to Earth high above the Northern lights, also nodding to Michelangelo’s famous creation painting.

Anyone who is familiar with Monkman’s career will be familiar with Miss Chief, a central force in his paintings, film and multimedia works since 2002. Another serendipitous moment? Even Monkman wasn’t sure of Miss Chief’s origins until he began working on the twovolume book “The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle,” with fellow artist and curator Gisèle Gordon, his creative collaborator of more than three decades. When Monkman was approached back in 2017 by the ROM to curate this show, it turned into something of a reveal for Miss Chief.

“When I created Miss Chief, I didn’t know the background of this character,” Monkman says. “I didn’t know where she was from or where she was going. But the memoir was an opportunity to ask those hard questions. Then the ROM project was this opportunity to really bring her voice into sharper focus an d her purpose, how she could tell the story of this land and to being a witness to these different time periods.”

Miss Chief’s frequent companions, the legendary Cree mîmîkwîsiwak (or the Little People), appear throughout the show, serving as emotional guides. In one painting, the four-inch-tall people adorned in glitter and sparkles inspect a horned dinosaur head, the real thing sitting in a case just feet away. In another painting, the mîmîkwîsiwak dance around one of Miss Chief’s beaded stilettos beside a “fossilized” real shoe.

Monkman deliberately plays with size within his storytelling throughout the show. Looking out a window in the space, the show sits high above the massive plant-eating Barosaurus in the ROM lobby. Early in the process of developing the show, he thought about the thousands of school kids who traipse through the museum each year, fascinated by dinosaurs. He began thinking about the stories told to Indigenous children: what are they taught? These ancient creatures? These fossils that were extracted from their land? Where are their stories?

“Our Cree origin stories, coming from the stars and the stories about the little people, this idea of scale is there and I believe it’s there in western science and in Indigenous science, too,” Monkman says. “There’s this idea of Indigenous thinking about spirit — this force that can never really die — and then to compare that to theories of atomic and molecular science, that there are particles in motion. It’s a way to think about the micro and the macro worlds and play with scale.”

The colourful first half of the show represents a pre-colonial land, filled with laughter and storytelling by Elders, guided by a knowledgeable matriarchy during which the children “knew everything they needed to live.” Abruptly, the exhibition’s colours drop their joyful hues, and we’re confronted with the violence of residential schools. “The Sparrow,” hung alone in a small sanitized grey alcove, sees a young girl attempting to reach a small bird perched atop a window, a crucifix hung starkly on the drab walls. It will break every heart in sight.

When Monkman first began discussions with ROM director and CEO Josh Basseches in 2017, he wanted the show to address colonialism but learned that the museum has nothing in its collection that speaks directly to the residential school experience.

“I knew that had to be part of this narrative, because of the children,” says Monkman. “But over time, the colonial chapter got smaller and smaller because I wanted people to get the feeling that we are not defined by colonialism, it’s really just a short blip on this long timeline of our presence here.”

Monkman achieves a marvelling feat with this show: an exhibition inside a museum that draws attention to the colonial failings of museums and how they acquired artifacts, which were traditionally studied under an anthropological lens extracting any humanity. (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report includes several steps for museums to better protect Indigenous rights.) The show also serves as a beacon for the ROM’s rebrand and new tagline, “ROM Immortal,” which positions the institution as a hub of human storytelling.

Monkman believes in making change from within, serving on the boards of the Gardiner Museum just across the street and the Glenbow Museumin Calgary. “A lot of museums in Canada have people in roles of Indigenous engagement or curatorial roles, and these are all super important steps towards shifting the narrative,” Monkman says.

“I know some Indigenous people have said, ‘Let’s do our own thing outside of these mainstream museums, but if we do that, then they remain unchecked. And they’ll continue to get the narrative wrong and they’ll continue to harm. It’s about shifting that conversation now and reaching the next generations with different perspectives.”

The final room of the show, and perhaps its most powerful, imagines the future in the present.

In museums, a room of portraits (usually of white men) suggests traditional power. Here,11striking portraits of Métis, Inuit and First Nations people line the walls, including Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, cofounder of Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, Inuk filmmaker and artist asinnajaq, and Indigenous star expert Wilfred Buck (Pawaminikititicikiw).

Monkman — whose work over the past decades has been openly influenced by the portraiture of Paul Kane and George Catlin — views these works as a response to the heated discussion over the last few years over the fate of colonial statues.

He takes to heart the words of Sen. Murray Sinclair, who advised, “Let’s build monuments to our own people.”

“It was an opportunity to take this idea of Indigenous portraiture and really celebrate honour and canonize my heroes; the people that I’ve met that are doing incredible work, young and old, and from diverse backgrounds,” says 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.”