Kent Monkman: mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People)
On ViewThe Metropolitan Museum Of Art
December 17, 2019 – April 9, 2020
It may be that history, as Winston Churchill said, is written by the victors, but a deep satisfaction can be had for those who redraft it. Cree artist Kent Monkman does just that for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s inaugural Great Hall Commission. His installation, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) (2019), consists of two large-scale narrative paintings, each measuring 11 by 22 feet, for which the artist borrowed content and technique from the museum’s extensive collection of Euro-American 19th century painting. Familiar motifs appear within a traditional framework of history painting, but the stories Monkman tells in these assemblies of figures upend American mythologies of a declining native population ready to cede its new Eden to Johnny-come-lately pilgrims and explorers. Monkman reverses the European gaze, presenting Indigenous people as heroes who welcome and rescue invading newcomers.
The latest in a series of new installations sponsored by the Met, which include the Rooftop and Façade Commissions, the Great Hall Commission invites a contemporary artist to engage with the museum’s physical space as well as its encyclopedic collection in an effort to provide audiences with broader perspectives from which to consider the Met’s architecture, as well as its vast holdings. mistikôsiwak was curated by Randall Griffey and the works were conceived by Monkman in consultation with Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. Flanking either side of the interior east facing walls of the main lobby of the museum, Monkman’s diptych feels in harmony with its surroundings, even as it interrogates the traditions from which it draws.
In Welcoming the Newcomers (2019), the artist envisions a rocky point of land strewn with flowers and surrounded by choppy seas. A storm seems to have just abated, and the sun shines through layers of gray clouds. In the distance, migrating Europeans cling to an overturned boat. Missionaries, conquistadors, and a Black man in shackles claw their way onshore, where they are received by a community of Indigenous people. Central to the image is the figure of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s gender-fluid alter ego who appears as a Two-Spirit figure, a Native term used to describe a traditional third-gender role who stands apart from the binary world view introduced by colonialism. Clad in a sheer scarlet wrap and a pair of mile-high Louboutin heels, she extends a hospitable arm to the approaching newcomers. A time-traveling avatar from the future, she gazes directly at the viewer with tear-stained eyes, a beam of light caressing her back and face. Change arrives on Turtle Island—a Native American term for North America—and Miss Chief weeps for what is to come.
Monkman’s second painting, Resurgence of the People (2019) moves forward in time, crowding Miss Chief and her associates into a small boat which they paddle through rising waters. The image evokes recent scenes of refugees packed into small crafts. A Black man wearing a white medical coat (possibly the descendent of the slave who arrives in Welcoming the Newcomers) pulls a white body out of the water. In the prow of the boat, a woman holds a dying baby, while in the stern, a grandmotherly trio beams at a robust newborn. Plastic bottles, a baby’s shoe, and an oil-drenched pelican float past. A chorus of paramilitaries dance on a small outcropping of rock, guns raised to the sky in a salute to Miss Chief, draped again in red chiffon and stiletto pumps. She stands in the middle of the ship, one foot resting on a side rail, an eagle feather extended in front of her. Her pose immediately evokes Emanuel Leutze's iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), one of the museum’s most popular attractions, but unlike Washington, who led his men into a long winter of fighting the British, Miss Chief seems intent on leading her people to higher, safer ground. Their destiny is not the romantic wilderness of American landscape painters like George Inness or William Morris Hunt, but a place in which old languages are spoken and ancient traditions are revived.
Alongside the paintings, the museum has dispersed Where’s Waldo-style signage that designate works referenced by Monkman and the galleries in which they can be found. Making my way upstairs to the American wing, I found a small group hovered around Washington Crossing the Delaware, its gilded frame topped by a bald eagle. Ames Van Wart’s Indian Vase (1876) stood on a pedestal nearby. The story of the buffalo hunt, now little more than a memory, plays out in bas-relief along its sides. Two figures perch on its edges, one looking proud, if also angry, and the second gazing forlornly into the distance. Not to worry, I think to myself, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is on her way.