Kent Monkman prepares to debut his largest painting yet

On the heels of his popular U of T Art Museum show, the Cree artist is unveiling a 12 x 24-ft history painting based on a treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois


Kent Monkman
Kent Monkman in his studio – photo credit: Samuel Engleking

Kent Monkman’s show at U of T Art Museum earlier this year might have been Toronto’s most important art exhibition of 2017.

Hugely popular, Shame And Prejudice: A Story Of Resilience presented the artists’ work along with a selection of historical paintings and artefacts. A much-needed corrective to the Canada 150 celebrations, the exhibition addressed topics including treaty signings, First Nations’ reserves, residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Whatever the event’s organizers had in mind when planning the sesquicentennial, it probably wasn’t this.

Now Monkman is back with Two Ships. The monumental painting will be presented for two days – September 26 and 27 – as part of 360: Bridges at 6 Degrees Citizen Space, an event that asks what citizenship looks like in the 21st century. This series of discussions at the Art Gallery of Ontario will be livestreamed via four Toronto Public Library branches. Monkman’s talk happens September 26 from 3:30-5 pm, and his piece will be shown in Paris at the Canadian Cultural Centre’s inaugural exhibition in May 2018.

At 12 x 24 ft, this is the largest painting you’ve made. Tell me about it.

This project has been ongoing for almost three years. I wanted to do a very large history painting. The scale has a certain impact. The story I wanted to tell is based on a treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois called the Two Row Wampum Treaty. It was a belt with two purple rows of beads made by the Iroquois to talk about a peace alliance — one for the European vessel and one for the Indigenous vessel and the idea was that they would travel a parallel course and not interfere with one another.

This painting is, of course, that moment of interference. I was inspired by Delacroix’s Christ On The Sea Of Galilee (1854). The parable here was that Christ was asleep and everyone was freaking out because they thought the boat they were in was going to sink. And he was blissfully asleep. In my painting, because of the collision of two cultures, these two vessels are about to collide and Miss Chief, my alter ego, is asleep in the boat. The idea is she is going to wake up and calm the storm.

With your show at U of T’s Art Museum – the room about the residential schools, for instance – I saw that and thought, I’ve never seen anything like this before.

Well, that was part of my work as I cycle through Western art history looking for all these gaps – there are huge gaps in the narrative and how the story of North America is told through a very European lens. The other stuff never really made it into the art canon because no one wanted to show it or to expose it. These chapters of Indigenous history – the removal of children, the rate of incarceration, the dispossession of Indigenous people from our land – those never made it into art history. They never made it into our school curriculums. I never set out to be an educator, but when I went into art history, all this stuff just came to the surface and I had to deal with it.

A large part of what I do in the art world is bring people over to my perspective because they are so used to the dominant narrative, which is a whitewash. The incidences where this story does exist in art history is minor. The story North America tells itself about its own history and mythology is flawed.

Do you think there are different rates of progress between Canada and the U.S. on these issues?

[Americans] are at least a generation behind in terms of their awareness. It’s like slipping back in time when you go across the border, depending where you are. That’s my perception. I feel that they are 20, 25 years behind. They have never had a major biennial, like the Sakahàn, of Indigenous work. They don’t have Indigenous curators working in institutions as contemporary curators. We do. And those are major battles that took generations to secure.

There is the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., but that’s an ethnographic museum.

Exactly. That’s still how native people exist in the minds and imaginations of Americans, that they belong in the ethnological wing. Or the Indian Market. It’s either tourist art or they are ethnological specimens. That’s one of the biggest problems holding back Indigenous art from getting into the mainstream.

In Canada, the treaties haven’t been resolved. Is that the reason this history is not being dealt with?

Absolutely. It all goes back to the Indian Act and how the government has established a relationship with Indigenous people. It’s not nation-to-nation; we are wards of the state. We still have cards with numbers that identify us as wards of the state. This goes back to the signing of the treaties and the beginnings of colonial policies that began with incarcerating Indigenous people on reserves and then the institutionalization of Indigenous people through all these different policies.

This is why Indigenous people fill our prisons, because they were foster children. They were taken out with the Sixties Scoop and never had a chance. They never had a relationship with their parents or grandparents and they became institutionalized. They are in our prisons, they are in our foster care system. I could go on and on.


Michael Lewis

‘We All Lie Together’, oil on canvas, 49" x 49.5" (2007)
I’ve never forgotten what an artist friend once told me. Making paintings is an exceptionally weird thing to do. Applying paint to a flat surface, constructing the illusion of space in two dimensions: What could be the motive for this?

Among the legion of painters devoted to figuration, Michael Lewis maps out a distinct place. In his large-scale works, the dimensions of painting become the constricted space of everyday urban existence: the hotel hallways, office buildings and banquet halls. Windowless rooms contain faceless people, all of them suffering from some nameless torpor. Primarily a painter of interior spaces, Lewis frequently includes potted plants in his pictures to provide a (somewhat cynical) reminder of natural life. When Lewis does paint the outside world, his landscapes look suitably alien.

Sometimes the torpor in Lewis’s work is depicted. In ‘We All Lie Together’ (2007), a group of people lie on the floor. More often, torpor is just an ambience pervading the work. The artist uses a tepid palette of blue and green to serve psychological ends. There is no air in these rooms. Often the paintings are tinged with an undercoat of red, giving them an eerie vitality. The subtle reddish glow suggests a painterly corollary for disquiet.

Lewis used to be a bike courier and he told me this may be the reason why the mise en scene of his imagination always ends up looking like the lobby of an office building. In his paintings, people are busy but it’s hard to say what exactly they are doing. Allegories of office job deadness, bomb shelter anomie or consumer culture conformity all spring to mind.

More to the point perhaps is the claim Lewis makes in his paintings that his medium conveys meaning. His work recalls a quote of Rene Magritte, who described painting as “the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced.”1 In Magritte’s view, a successful painting achieved just that, a kind of poetic coherence, one that “dispenses with any symbolic significance.” Lewis’s work achieves this coherence. His paintings give an impression of profundity; numerous potential readings could result. Our willingness to invest in the work’s reality is connected to the artist’s motives when making it. In the end, however, all readings hit up against the limit of what Lewis’ works actually articulate: the artist’s skill at painting.

1. Frasnay, Daniel. The Artist’s World. “Magritte.” New York: The Viking Press, 1969. pp. 99-107

By Rosemary Heather

This text originally appeared in Hunter and Cook, Issue 09
Michael Lewis is represented by the Meredith Keith Gallery.
Michael Lewis’ website is here.