INTERPRETATIONS OF ICONOGRAPHY THROUGH THE LENS OF A WINNIPEG CREE
By contributing to modern contemporary art history, Kent Monkman seamlessly merges the colonial, traditional, and urban histories of Indigenous peoples in Canada. His painting, The Death of the Female (Fig. 2), is a prime example of this synthesis. As history is an essential aspect to Monkman’s work, I compare Monkman’s work to that of Benjamin West. Similar to West, Monkman includes strong iconography within his paintings to form a powerful narrative that is rich in both culture and critique. Other works, such as West’s the Death of General Wolfe (Fig. 1) are considered against this focal piece.
Kent Monkman is a Canadian artist and registered member of the Fish River First Nations band situated in Northern Manitoba. Monkman spent much of his youth growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, before moving to Toronto, Ontario to further his education. He continues to be based out of Toronto. This piece follows after Monkman has presented works in a variety of mediums such as performance, film, sculptural installations, paintings, and even children’s book illustrations. His work is exhibited in museums across Canada, including the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art located in Toronto, Ontario, as well as the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. The iconography included in Monkman’s carefully crafted imagery melds realism with surrealism, and contrasts traditional Indigenous figures with religious symbolism. By researching and examining recurring elements within his work, I aim to analyze his inclusion of such visuals to explore his intended narrative for this piece. Some of such images include Picassoesque female subject(s), traditional Indigenous figures, pictographs as well as religious symbolism, particularly Christian. It is by “setting off the Christian iconography, [that] West introduces the exotic majesty of the [I]ndigenous warrior”.
Essentially, Monkman endeavors to overwrite the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada and by doing so gives voice to the underrepresented or misrepresented. His scenes combine realism with surrealism to result in a narrative of authentic contemporary Indigenous culture. In Death of the Female, Monkman juxtaposes modern subjects and imagery with traditional ones. The intersection of European settler (Christian) religion and traditional Indigenous culture(s) are evident.
The setting of the painting is an actual residential street corner located at Chambers Street and Alexander Avenue in Winnipeg’s north end. The focus of the painting is a group of four young Indigenous men; they are frantically attending to a Picassoesque female who appears to be the victim of a possible hit-and-run, drive-by shooting, or other violent assault, as her naked figure looks twisted and torn, and she is in distress.
The traditionally-dressed male standing behind her is shown with intricate detailing in his appearance as well; he is wearing a buffalo horn head dress with an eagle feather bussel that also reaches down to the ground. However, his shoes and pants are not traditional at all, as he is painted wearing a pair of jeans and a white pair of Adidas sneakers. This may intend to represent Indigenous cultural practices as alive and well, and to show the balance between the modern and traditional worlds of Indigenous peoples today.
Representation matters. Throughout history, ‘the Indian’ has consistently been reduced to an emblem of nature or location in many works of art. Representation is commonly stereotypical, focusing on such tropes as the noble savage or the artisan, for example. West’s The Death of General Wolfe, “exemplifies the imaginary Indian” stereotype. Likewise, Johnson writes that “West’s portrayal of Indians have been criticized as they pose in classical western models setting a pattern for later visual distortions of the mythic Indian past.” Continually, Indians are described as something that was, rather than something that is, and are reduced to stereotypical elements of a generic Indigenous culture. Sienkewicz expresses a similar critique, suggesting that West “link[s] the Native American community with conceptions of transient wilderness and with artisanal knowledge”. This misrepresentation in media continues to present day, as a result of the imagery begun in such distortions.
In contrast, Kent Monkman is one of few present-day artists whose work depicts the true history of Indigenous peoples, while simultaneously showing the present-day reality of many. His close attention to detail makes his representation exquisite and is shown in his carefully-painted subjects. For example, a striking contrast between the young men in this painting is evident; dichotomies such as long-versus-short hair, religious-versus-traditional tattoos, and red-versus-blue ‘colours’ provide an obvious juxtaposition between the two pairs of men. Suggested are two of Winnipeg’s most notorious street gangs—Indian Posse, associated with the ‘gang colour’ red—and rival gang Manitoba Warriors, known for the colour blue. Yet despite these important and intentional differences, Monkman ensures a balance among these parties; moreover, a cooperation between them is the main subject of the scene. These four men are shown offering concern and support for the distressed female figure, almost hinting that the mistreatment of women (such as the initiatives for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) may be a cause worthy of truce between sides.
Similarly, these men could represent the dichotomy of the two binary stereotypes of Indigenous people today. Firstly, those who have lost touch with their traditional teachings and language and have become assimilated into the Christian religious. Secondly, those who have not urbanized or assimilated as much, and whom still practice traditional ceremonies. Notably, the tattoos Monkman selected for each subject are a good representation of this binary. The male with short hair and blue basketball outfit is shown with religious tattoo, such as prayer hands and the Virgin Mary, which is in contrast to the male with long hair, tattoos of traditional Indigenous artwork, as well as the words “ …ian Posse” (which likely represents street gang Indian Posse). Another notable attribute of these men would be their hairstyles; traditionally Indigenous men wear their hair long as a representation of their strength and pride in their roots. However, many Indigenous men today keep their hair short: either resulting from ignorance of traditional ways or deliberately to hide their Indigenous ancestry (often due to the efforts of residential schools). Being the son of a residential school survivor myself, I have seen many Indigenous people who fit both Monkman’s depictions. These stereotypes are alive and well and are commonly seen in Winnipeg’s north end.
History is a key element to Monkman’s work; he seamlessly combines colonial history, art history, and the history of a forced “dispossession and genocide against Indigenous people” in Canada. Thompson eloquently describes this construct as “Monkman’s… playful, often ambiguous way [he] revisits history by placing strong contemporary images in dialogue with traditional and historical objects” and it is in this way that he synthesizes his images into a combination of culture and critique.
Moreover, the historical iconography in Death of the Female is not limited to geography, nor religious or Indigenous symbolism. Monkman clearly alludes to Picasso with his cubist female figure. He describes his appreciation for how Picasso “butchers the female nude… [and that] for [him] that was a way of speaking about and representing the violence being perpetrated against Indigenous women.” It is in this way that Monkman combines the works of Picasso with current Indigenous sociopolitical issues. An example of visual analogy is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avingon (Fig. 4). Beyond Picasso, Monkman also draws parallels to Benjamin West’s works. For example, the buffalo horn headdress depicted on the traditional male in Monkman’s Death of the Female is similar to that of the headdress worn in West’s William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (Fig. 3). This is merely one of the ways that Monkman combines artwork and imagery from the 1700s to present day.
Kent Monkman’s contributions to contemporary art history merge colonial, traditional, and urban histories of Indigenous peoples in Canada. His painting, The Death of the Female, does this via allusion to artists such as Benjamin West and Pablo Picasso within the context of modern, urban Indigenous imagery, both cultural and societal. This representation of Indigenous peoples and culture as current, authentic, and active functions to create commentary on much of the same history and politics, but via a different—and notably Indigenous—lens; this creates a more current and critical artistic capture of colonization’s aftermath.
by Marco Muller
 Winnipeg Art Gallery. Accessed February 4, 2018. http://wag.ca/art/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/display,exhibition/45/kent-monkman
 King, Thomas and William Kent Monkman, 1992. A Coyote Columbus Story. Toronto: Groundwood.
 Monkman, Kent. The Four Continents. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2017.
 Phillips, Mark Saber. “History Painting Redistanced: From Benjamin West to David Wilkie.”
 Freeman, J. Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Therese Walter & Dora Maar. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1994. Modern Intellectual History, 2014, 11.3, pp. 611-629.
 Francis, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011, p. 29.
 Johnson, Michael G. Encyclopedia of Native Tribes of North America. Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly, 2014, p.60.
 Sienkewicz, Julia A., 2009. Beyond the Mowhawk Warrior: Reinterpreting Benjamin West’s Evocations of American Indians. Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century.
 McMaster, G. and L. Martin, eds. Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives. Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre, 1992.
 Enright, Robert. “The Incredible Rightness of Mischief: An interview with Kent Monkman.” Border Crossings, September 2017, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp.26-40.
 Thompson, M. “Review of My Treaty Is With The Crown.” Border Crossings, September 2011, Volume 30, Issue 3, p.123-125.
 Cooper, Philip. Cubism. London: Phaidon Press, 1995.; Enright, Robert. “The Incredible Rightness of Mischief: An interview with Kent Monkman.” Border Crossings, September 2017, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp.26-40.