Kent Monkman’s Miss America spins an 18th-century painting into a saga of our continent’s violent history.
Kent Monkman, the cree artist with the glittery drag alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, makes paintings full of naughty queer/aboriginal/art historical jokes. But in his show at Centre Space, a recently opened offshoot of Montreal's Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain, he's tucked subtler messages into his perfectly executed North American landscapes.
In Miss America, the show's ambitious centrepiece, Miss Chief rides an alligator atop a writhing mass of figures inspired by the Americas section of Tiepolo's 1754 Allegory Of The Four Continents, commission for a palace in Würzburg, Germany. Monkman turns Tiepolo's pageant of benevolent colonialism into an action movie scene where violence and sexual desire play out, with references to environmental destruction and 9/11. Everyone from soldiers of various periods to a nursing mother and a beaver is heavily armed or otherwise up to no good.
Two enigmatic paintings set aboriginal figures in romantic 19th-century-style mountain scenes. (Depictions of western North America often sought to represent an "empty" landscape ripe for white settlement and resource extraction.) In Flow, canoeists approach a mysterious sinkhole, while in Descent Into Amnesia, the native group contemplates Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase on an opposite hill.
Monkman returns to the German theme in two videos. In a diptych screened in picture frames with a painted mountain backdrop, a preening Tonto lectures the Lone Ranger as Winnetou does the same to Shatterhand.
Little known here but still popular in Germany, Karl May's 19th-century Winnetou stories put a Teutonic spin on the white man's homoerotic fantasy of escape from the burdens of bourgeois responsibility to a life of male bonding in the North American wilderness.
In a music video for disco tune Dance To Miss Chief, footage from German Winnetou films, with their retro cast of red-painted Europeans, is intercut with hunky aboriginal dancers and the boogying Miss Chief. Strobing text tells us she's "the Bride of Winnetou," stealing the handsome hero from his white boyfriend. When you mix high and low culture with racism and sexuality, things are bound to get a little messy.