Miss Anti-Blackness: Kent Monkman and Black Imagery

‘Miss Africa’ Four Continent Series

On May 16th Cree and Two Spirit artist Kent Monkman publicly released the imagery for his new painting “Hanky Panky.” Set in a lodge, brightly lit by a smoke hole in the roof, his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is surrounded by smiling Indigenous womxn and Two Spirit folks. One might ask why this brightly coloured painting stirred up so much controversy? It is the focal point of the painting that has come under fire. A Justin Trudeau lookalike, is seen bent over on all fours with his pants down to his knees. Indigenous womxn hold him down while Miss Chief Eagle Testickle holds a giant, red, hand-shaped butt plug. To Monkman, the highly sexual act alluded to in the painting is something Trudeau is consenting to. However,  for many Indigenous womxn and Two Spirit individuals, the ones Monkman claims he empowers, the image portrays something very different: The violation of a sacred space by means of sexual assault, while those who are most often victims of this very violence endorse and celebrate the act.  

These passionate interpretations of Kent Monkman’s latest piece resulted in backlash across social media, Twitter in particular, as people voiced their criticisms and visceral feelings about the imagery. Tucked among the barrage of tweets was one that stuck out to me, not because I felt it was wildly misplaced, or because I disagreed with the numerous concerns of Indigenous womxn and Two spirit folks–which I don’t. I was struck by it because it was something I had thought, but had not seen voiced by anyone from the larger Indigenous community. 

“We also need to talk about the anti-Blackness in Kent Monkman’s work.” tweeted Nēhiyaw writer Erica Violet Lee. I found myself nodding in agreement and elated that we were going to finally address something that had been bothering me for some time. 

I remember when I first came across Kent Monkman’s artwork while reading a CanadianArt article entitled ‘Kent Monkman: History Painting for a Colonized Canada.’ His paintings were littered throughout the article, images of children being snatched by priests and nuns. Their mothers kicked and screamed to get to them while they fought off RCMP officers. Queen Victoria, depicted as a man while founding fathers, priests and two Indigenous men watch over a treaty signing. The founding fathers featured again as they watched Miss Chief Eagle Testickle lounge naked atop a Hudson Bay blanket. For 24-year old Afro-Indigenous me, I was captivated by the way Monkman threw Canada’s violence against Indigenous bodies, in their faces. The titled painting “The Scream,” showcased how violent the residential school era was, but also how violent the snatching of Indigenous children still is. So naturally I became a fan. Here was a Cree Two-Spirit man at what I thought was the forefront of Indigenous art. He was extremely talented and not afraid to paint the ugly truth of our realities as Indigenous peoples living in a colonial state. I fell in love with his art.

That meant, when I came across his piece Welcoming the Newcomers,’ set to be showcased at The Met, I was, I’m sad to say now, happy to see Black people represented in the painting. When we discuss Black and Indigenous relationships in North America, it is almost exclusively centered around what is now the United States. Very rarely do we highlight the historical and contemporary relationship between us in a Canadian context. And to be frank, Canada has done an amazing job at almost erasing the history of slavery on these lands from the collective Canadian consciousness. In the painting Miss Chief Eagle Testickle bends over the edge of a small island, wearing nothing but a red scarf and a pair of Louboutins, her hands reaching out. She grabs onto one of the hands of a Black man, who is clearly depicted as a slave. His hands are shackled and connected by chains to a collar around his neck.  

The problem isn’t that Monkman painted a Black man in his art. The issue is his clear lack of understanding of the relationship between African-descended people, in particular the descendants of slaves, and the Indigenous peoples to these territories. It romanticizes a relationship that is not only historically complex but also contemporarily so. While we would like to imagine a relationship in comparison to Chiwetel Ejiofor and the Native Americans who helped him in ‘12 years a slave’, the reality is; that throughout the 400 years of slavery that took place on these lands, both in Canada and the United States, Indigenous peoples participated in the oppression of Black people. Several nations owned slaves and while these nations were further south in the United States others helped to uphold it on these very lands. The Mohawk nation was known for hunting and capturing runaway slaves who had made it as far north as Canada. This isn’t to negate the harms Black folks enacted through things like buffalo soldiers, but to highlight that our shared kinship has much more nuances and depth. ‘Welcoming the Newcomers,’ gives off hints of white-saviourism, while also putting the Black slave in similar positionality to that of the white settlers also shipwrecked. 

Kent Monkman’s ‘Four Continents’ series is where some of his most egregious anti-Black offences take place. In this series Monkman gives a reinterpretation of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s frescoes, commissioned in 1751. It is Monkman’s ‘Miss Africapiece that leaves you wondering if he did any research on the continent or if he consulted with a single Black person before painting it. The imagery is jarring. What is supposed to be an “edgy” take on interconnectedness and global colonization comes across as a tone deaf, pan-African display of stereotypes. The painting is comprised of topless women parading around as a young man in grills fights an officer while covered in shackles with Chanel and Tiffany symbols on them.  Another topless woman, who has somehow found jeans and a thong, stands in the back of car while holding a machine gun. What adds to the confusion is that atop this same car a man is being attacked by a tiger. A simple Google search would have informed Monkman that tigers aren’t native to the continent.

Miss Chief Eagle Testickle has been the focal point in most, if not all, of Monkman’s work. She is once again present in the ‘Miss Africa’ piece. The issue is not her presence but the way in which she is positioned within it. No longer just Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, she is now “Miss Africa.” Perched atop a rhino and wearing nothing but a pair of gold heels and a gold headpiece, she is the Two-Spirit sovereign of Africa. The problem with this is that it erases the very real presence of African or Black Queer heroes. Monkman could have easily chosen to depict a Black Trans woman or Queer person to take on the personification of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Audrey Mbugua, a Trans activist from Kenya, Bebe Zahara Benet, a Cameroonian drag queen or Miss Sahhara, a Trans Nigerian artist, would have been perfect models. His choice to also depict Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in a Cleopatra style, further plays into the erasure of Black people in Egypt, in a style similar to that of 1950’s American films. 

Despite Kent Monkman’s willingness to “highlight” the interrelatedness of people’s across his paintings, Black people are surprisingly missing from both the ‘Miss Europe’ and ‘Miss America’ pieces. This is strange because of the colonization by Europe of both the Americas and Africa, as well as the large Black population throughout South, Central and North America. It diminishes Black peoples’ connectedness to land to solely the African continent. It doesn’t allow the viewer or the Black characters in Monkman’s artwork to explore Black people’s relationships to the lands they were forced to make homes in.  

In his piece ‘Resurgence of the People,’ The Black people present are once again depicted in a way that erases their personhood. Simply relegated to work, neither of the two Black figures present are able to simply be “along for the ride.” Instead they are seen pulling two men, who appear to be white settlers, up into the boat. For some reason, unbeknownst to the viewer, Monkman has the only two Black characters rescuing their very oppressors. What also raises concern is the lack of detail to the faces of the Black figures. Eyes closed, face fixed in struggle, they’re missing the very things that make Kent Monkman’s work feel so, well, alive. He is known for his use of live models for his artwork and their likeness often being very prominent in his paintings. This has to make you wonder, who in the world is Monkman basing his Black figures after? Whose faces are gracing the canvases he so brightly paints?   

In early March, while scrolling on Instagram, I saw one of Monkman’s newest pieces. On a large stone next to a body of water sits an Indigenous woman. She wears a blue and red jingle dress and a pair of beautiful beaded moccasins. Her hair ends are wrapped in muskrat furs while big beaded earrings hang from her ears. In her left hand she holds an eagle feather while a copper pot sits on the ground next to her feet. It takes me a moment but soon enough I see that she resembles someone I know. An Afro-Indigenous woman whom I have shared space in ceremony with. At a university that was predominantly white and in a city where I didn’t know of any other Afro-Indigenous peoples, this woman was a saving grace. Like me, she moved through both worlds, proud of her Barbadian and Nēhiyaw roots. A fellow academic and a ceremony sister, she allowed me to picture a future where I could be utterly and entirely me. 

Which is why I was caught off guard by the fact that her Blackness was clearly missing from the painting I saw before me. I remember sending her the image on Instagram, alongside the message “I honestly thought this was you.” Without enthusiasm, she simply replied “It is.” During a later conversation with a friend I had referred to the painting as being a “native-washed” image of my friend. This wasn’t the only time that I knew of her modelling for Kent Monkman’s work, and not yet being depicted as she appears. In January she had posted that in 2018 she was among others chosen to be models for his Water Protector painting series. While there is imagery that very closely resembles the live image taken of her, her likeness is clearly missing. Monkman has depicted lighter or white-passing Indigneous peoples in several of his paintings. However, Afro-Indigneous peoples are continuously absent from his work.

Kent Monkman’s inclusion of Black figures in his artwork has been a topic of critique and discussion since he first included us. While Erica Violet Lee’s tweet six days ago may have been the first time it was publicly mentioned this year, it wasn’t the first of its kind to date. Several Black people came out to echo their frustration, indicating that they have either kept silent or had private conversations about the anti-Blackness in his work out of respect for Indigenous peoples. One person shared that he had reached out to Kent Monkman in 2017 about his own concerns. Allegedly Monkman replied, stating that he knew where he went wrong with his past work. Despite that he still continues to create anti-Black artwork. 

For me, as an Afro-Indigenous woman who has had to navigate anti-Blackness within my community, I’m worried for what the future holds:  in particular around this conversation, and if Kent Monkman will ever truly be held accountable for his actions. The conversation around his anti-Black work was slipped into a larger conversation that was being had about a current sensationalized piece. Who’s to say that it won’t be swept back under the rug? On May 18th, Monkman released a public apology for his ‘Hanky Panky’ piece. Since then no such apology has been offered for the other criticisms levelled against him. So for now I guess we’ll just wait:  Wait to see if other voices will rise up with us. Wait to see if Monkman will apologize. Wait to see if yet again, anti-Blackness will be allowed to prevail in the name of art.

Edited by: Ashley L. Mayho and Zoë David-Delves

2 thoughts on “Miss Anti-Blackness: Kent Monkman and Black Imagery

  1. This was a really thorough piece on relations between indigenous folks and descendants of stolen Africans. Looking through a lens where I consider Africans indigenous to their respective countries, it’s something to grapple with, trying to make sense of the experience the enslaved had with indigenous people to the Americas. I think people don’t consider black folks as a part of the indigenous community and capturing them for art or otherwise, would require some additional work on their end to recategorize how they see black people. Very good piece.

    Like

  2. Chi-miigwech for the labour put into writing this very thorough piece. It was very helpful and better expressed some intuitive feelings I had about the artist’s work in general.

    Like

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