Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience may not be the art exhibit Canadians wanted during Canada 150, but it is undoubtedly the one they deserved. The touring installation confronts the country’s sesquicentennial celebrations from an Indigenous perspective and aims to “activate dialogue” about the ongoing effects of colonization for Indigenous peoples in Canada and Québec. Monkman, by way of his gender-bending and anti-colonial artistic alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, uses evocative interdisciplinary art to address themes of Indigenous starvation, dispossession, incarceration and genocide that are often marginalized in public discourse. In doing so, Monkman challenges Canadians to be discomforted by their past and to reflect on their ongoing complicity in colonization and the injustices facing Indigenous peoples today. The result is a hard-hitting, harrowing yet still hopeful exhibit that should be mandatory viewing in Canada 150 and beyond.
In the forward to the exhibit, Monkman explains that the goal of Shame and Prejudice is to crash Canada 150. He notes, “As Canadians celebrate the big birthday of confederation in 2017, we cannot forget that the last 150 years have been the most devastating for Indigenous peoples in this country: deliberate starvation, the reserve system, the legacy of incarceration, the removal of children to residential schools and the ’60s scoop, sickness and disease, persistent third-world housing conditions on reserves contemporary urban disenfranchisement, violence and poverty.” Yet Monkman also expresses hope: “The fact that Indigenous peoples continue to survive at all is a testament to our resiliency and strength.”
Overall, the exhibit is incredibly rich and wideranging, with pieces covering everything from the deliberate starvation of Indigenous peoples on the Prairies to the intergenerational trauma from residential schools. One interesting feature of the exhibit that stands out in light of recent events is the central role of Sir John A. Macdonald. In what is arguably the installation’s most iconic piece, The Daddies, Monkman flips the famous Fathers of Confederation painting by Robert Harris so that the statesmen, including Macdonald, are gazing upon Miss Chief’s naked body. A close-up of the eyes of the politicians reveals their shock and horror at being called to account by Miss Chief and her laying bare of Indigenous truth before them, spread-eagle.
Other notable pieces, such as Subjugation of Truth, shows Macdonald, along with other figures like a Mountie, priest, and capitalist, trying to convince Indigenous resistance leaders, while in chains, to sign treaties. Later chapters examine the ongoing effects of colonization for Indigenous peoples today. The images of poverty, substance abuse and gang violence in urban environments are particularly powerful. Through such imagery, Monkman forces the viewer to grapple with a more complicated view of Canada’s colonial past, so often whitewashed in celebratory fashion, and the ongoing effects for Indigenous peoples today.
It is interesting to note that while Monkman planned Shame and Prejudice in 2014, the exhibit speaks poignantly to recent debates about Canada’s one-sided celebratory history. Monkman’s exhibit thus offers people an opportunity to see history from a different and more truthful perspective. As a result, settlers in particular should make it a priority to witness Shame and Prejudice. The exhibit will be travelling throughout Canada for the next few years. The next stop is Kingston, Ontario, (John A. Macdonald’s long-time home) starting in January 2018.
Hopefully, in time, Shame and Prejudice will be seen as both the art exhibit Canadians deserved in Canada 150 and the one they so desperately needed to radically transform the next 150 years of Indigenous- settler relations.
Canadian Dimension is proud to have featured this important work on the cover of our last issue, which included a section on “Canada at 150.” The painting and other works can be viewed in brilliant colour on the Kent Monkman website under “paintings.” kentmonkman.com
This article appeared in the Autumn-Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (The ‘Sharing Economy’).