Toronto based Cree artist Kent Monkman is reframing one of the greatest art collections in the world with an Indigenous perspective, accepting a commission from none other than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The installation, titled “mistikosiwak” (“Wooden Boat People”), opens in the Met’s Great Hall today. Consisting of two large-scale canvases that form a diptych. On the left, “Welcoming the Newcomers” depicts the arrival of Europeans in North America, while “Resurgence of the People”, on the right, celebrates Indigenous resiliency in the face of colonizing forces.
Created by a team of 10 painters under Monkman’s direction and based on photo shoots that employed about 40 models and actors, these paintings represent the artist’s sophisticated deployment of conceptual historical revisionism. By drawing on tropes and styles of renaissance and baroque painting, “mistikosiwak” presents an alternative narrative of history with a first-nations centric perspective disguised within the aesthetics of colonial art.
Resurrecting a genre that was once considered the pinnacle of Western art before modernism, Monkman exposes the imperialist and colonialist assumptions that have pervaded the history of North America. Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met, says, “Cribbing from iconic images by European and American artists—Peter Paul Rubens, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Eugène Delacroix, and Thomas Crawford, among them—Monkman takes on the hallowed artistic conventions of depicting history and mythology, inserting intertwined themes of arrival, migration, displacement, and Indigenous disenfranchisement. Presented in the inner sanctum of the Museum’s entrance hall, these radical paintings act as a different kind of portal, welcoming and signaling new interpretations of the Museum’s encyclopedic collections.”
In presenting alternate mythologies and histories for patrons arriving at the MET, Monkman draws attention to the constructed nature of American history and of the concept of canonical art and in doing so reframes the entirety of the Museum’s collections. In coalescing classical European influences with colonial landscape depictions of North America Monkman instills the euro-centric genre with revisionist indigenous perspective, effectively subverting convention by playing with the spectator’s expectation of what is to be depicted.
“In creating these paintings I was inspired, not only by the historic artworks in The Met collection but also by the history of Manhattan itself,” said Monkman. “For thousands of years, these lands have been a meeting center for trade and diplomacy for many Indigenous nations, including the Lenape, until they were displaced by European settlers. These paintings reference Manhattan’s important role as a portal for immigration into North America and also the impact our rising sea levels will have on the millions who could be displaced in the not-too-distant future.”
In tackling the concept of displacement in past, present, and future, the implications of Monkman’s work are far-reaching and timely. In upending the pervasive and insidious myths of American history that serve to further colonial and imperial ideologies, “mistikosiwak” offers a new perspective going forward; one that stresses the concept of reconciliation and acknowledgment. By placing these paintings in the Great Hall of the museum, the MET is making a bold statement. “It’s an important moment to witness the voicing of previously underrepresented perspectives in such a prominent and symbolic location at The Met,” said Max Hollein, Director of the Museum. Under an administration marked by divisive political and ideological rhetoric, voicing these perspectives is nothing short of an act of political resistance.
Cody is the managing editor and senior contributor at Glossi Mag.
He is a photography aficionado, masters candidate, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.