Kent Monkman Unmasks the Colonial Complicity of Museums

Kent Monkman, We Are Made of Stardust, 2021, 81 x 108 cm. Courtesy the artist

In Being Legendary at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, the artist’s cosmic paintings form an indictment of the violence of Western museum practices, staged from within the museum

In the beginning, there was Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. ‘When I fell to askîy – this planet you call Earth – my form shifted from pure matter to cloud, to rain sprinkled with cosmic dust, and love,’ the glamorous, stiletto-clad alter ego of Cree artist Kent Monkman recalls in a wall label accompanying We Are Made of Stardust (2022), the opening painting of this storybook exhibition. There she is, hovering above our little blue planet, attended by rainbow pterodactyls like the Madonna in a Tiepolo fresco. Across the following 34 paintings, crisply rendered in Monkman’s signature realism and hung on boldly coloured walls with singsong didactics, Miss Chief guides us through a Jurassic idyll where dinosaurs and tiny ancestral humans peacefully cohabitate. Geodes and dinosaur bones from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) are presented in vitrines like scientific evidence of this fairytale history. (The fossilised stiletto, Mesozoic maskisina, 2022, is Monkman’s own puckishly sculpted addition.)

I Come from pâkwan kîsik, the Hole in the Sky, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 91 × 69 cm. Courtesy the artist

If this all seems a bit twee, it’s worth remembering that all good fairytales teach us core truths, like the proclamation, on the gallery wall, that Indigenous people ‘have always been here’. Monkman’s expansive vision of the planetary record allows our imagination to fill in the blindspots of archaeology, a discipline informed by settler colonialism. Colonial violence takes centre stage halfway through the show, where Miss Chief recounts the French, British and Canadian theft of Indigenous lands and the abduction of First Nations children who, for over a century, were sent to residential schools and forcibly assimilated. In Study for the Sparrow (2021), a young girl in a cold white dormitory leans up to a window ledge towards a small bird – a symbol of the freedom that eludes her. It’s a work as beautiful as it is devastating, more unshakeable than any of the high-camp confections on display. In a particularly haunting gesture, Monkman has placed a case of moccasins from the ROM collection opposite paintings of the same footwear attended by tiny grieving ancestors, invoking the people who left them behind. It’s an indictment of the violence of Western museum practices, staged from within the museum – part of a recent and long overdue trend in Canada to address institutional complicity in settler colonialism. Miss Chief knows there are other stories to tell, and she has better ways of telling them.

Being Legendary at Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, through 16 April 2023

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