Kent Monkman in his Toronto studio. Photo: Aaron Wynia
Artist Kent Monkman’s Gender-Fluid, Time-Travelling, Alter-Ego Gets a Memoir
Miss Chief Eagle Testickle's story embodies 'the humour and the sexiness' of Cree culture, and reframes colonial history / BY Riley Yesno / October 26th, 2023
In Canada, some refer to the time we’re living in as the “age of reconciliation.” Increasingly, we have been encouraged to learn about, and connect with, Indigenous people, the original stewards of these lands. It is in this context that Kent Monkman, a multidisciplinary two-spirit Cree artist from Fisher River Cree Nation in Treaty 5 Territory in Manitoba, has emerged as one of the most prominent people bringing Indigenous stories to the world.
Monkman’s work – featured in some of the biggest galleries and museums in the world, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum – takes a traditionally European-associated style of painting and blends it with an Indigenous world view. The result: visual stories that challenge the way viewers think about Indigenous people, Canadian history and their place in it.
To accomplish these feats, Monkman has increasingly employed his alter ego/creative persona, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle: “Miss Chief,” for short. A powerful being, Miss Chief is able to travel through space and time to show us history from a different perspective – and she does this all while transgressing colonial gender and sexual norms, playfully and fabulously.
In his newest project, Monkman is working alongside his creative partner in crime, settler media artist Gisèle Gordon. The pair have collaborated for more than 30 years and created several films, live performances, and now, a book: a two-volume text published by Penguin Random House titled The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle: A True and Exact Accounting of the History of Turtle Island.
The project is described as an unprecedented combination of “history, fiction, and memoir” – following the journey of Miss Chief from the creation of the universe to the present day. Accompanying this ambitious text are dozens of Monkman’s paintings, some of which were created for the books’ publication.
Zoomer got a sneak peek at the new work and sat down with the artists to chat about Miss Chief, combatting colonial retellings of history, and much more.
Riley Yesno: First, can you tell me about your relationship? What does collaboration look like for you two? Was working on this project at all different?
Gisèle Gordon: I think we were really attracted to one another as artists before I even knew Kent was Indigenous. … He is brilliant, and I know he’s always gonna make my project better, no matter what it is. I guess that trust just develops over time.
The book took us a bit longer because we’d never worked in this form. So, we started out as if it were a film project. I asked Kent if he could make colour copies of every painting with Miss Chief, and then we laid them all out on the floor. Basically, we made a storyboard as if we were doing a film. That became our outline, our road map.
Kent Monkman: It’s definitely been a project of discovery and learning and exploration. I’d have to admit, in the beginning, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
RY: The book mentions that Miss Chief first appeared in Kent’s work Portrait of the Artist as Hunter in 2002. Did you ever picture a memoir for her at that time?
KM: At the time … I was looking at the art history of this continent as made by settlers. The deeper I got into their work, the more I realized I wanted to offer a counter-narrative to this authoritative one in our museums.
I knew I needed a central sort of character that could reverse the gaze. That’s where Miss Chief was born. From there, I started to explore all the possibilities of having her interact with real history: historical characters, mythological characters, Cree legendary beings, etc. She has really taken on a life and story of her own.
RY: Desire and sexuality are obvious themes throughout the work. Why was it important for you to centre these elements? Is it in any way a comment on how repressively settler society treats these topics?
KM: Yeah. That is, in many ways, the origin. [Miss Chief’s] driving force was to decolonize these spaces: where the church had had influence in our communities, museums and so on. She does this with an exuberant, empowered sexuality.
She embodies the humour and the sexiness that are in Cree culture and in Cree language. Actually, we sent one of our earlier drafts to our Cree advisers, and they sent it back and said, “Make it funnier and make it sexier!” We wanted her to embody that playfulness that’s in our storytelling and remove the shame associated with sexuality.
GG: It’s also just a historical fact. There’s so much documentation in almost every nation of two-spirit people living and being completely accepted. It was just not a big deal. And often those people were very honoured members of their different nations. This is a very normal and innate way of being.
RY: You mentioned language. That’s also a massive part of this project. How do you describe the role of language in the work?
KM: Giselle and I have been learning Cree over the past few years. The Cree language was in my family, and an interruption happened through residential schools. It wasn’t passed down. So, reclamation of language has really been super important to me.
So much of Cree thinking, Cree world view and Cree cosmology is in the language. Giselle likened it to a braid of sweetgrass. We have the Cree language, Miss Chief’s story and the history of this continent. We kind of braided those three things together through this book.
RY: Gisele, as mentioned, you and Kent have worked together extensively and, in general, you have been immersed in Indigenous storytelling for many years. What have you learned that might benefit other settlers interacting with Indigenous stories?
GG: Three decades ago, when I met Kent, I definitely wasn’t consciously thinking about my identity as a settler. Then I started to see how [Kent’s] work was just put into a box right away … and I learned from those at the forefront of narrative sovereignty.
I made mistakes, and I still make mistakes – I think that’s important to know. As a settler, you’ll make mistakes, and [you need] to be open to hearing about it when you do and saying “thank you” – not trying to defend yourself. Listen. Get out of the way when necessary. Defer to your Indigenous collaborators. Give more than you take – like, a lot more.
RY: Kent, you were honoured with an Indspire Award in 2014 and were recently made a member of the Order of Canada, among many other recognitions. What do you think this says, if anything, about the place of queer, Indigenous art in Canada?
KM: As an artist, I was empowered by seeing Indigenous artists ahead of me who were speaking their truths. So, I see what I do as enlarging that space that was already there and amplifying other voices as much as possible.
We have so much to offer, and our voices have been silenced. We’ve had our languages and our cultures beaten out of us. And now we are at this point where there is this renaissance of so much knowledge. The Indigenous way of knowing and being in this world is our way out of this mess. Honestly, that’s the way I think about it. Others just have to catch up.
RY: While reframing the narrative of Canada through Miss Chief’s eyes is an obvious (and I think well-accomplished) objective, what other hopes do you have for the book?
GG: This is a way forward for everybody. We really literally want to make the world a little bit better, if it’s possible, through this book. We want to empower all these kids on the reserve that may be struggling to come out. We want settlers who pick up the book because they like the artwork to have a seductive, playful way into these deeper issues of colonial violence. We want to celebrate the power and the joy of Cree culture and all Indigenous cultures.
KM: [Indigenous peoples’] experiences can often get compressed in the telling of history – we become just statistics. I want Miss Chief to help make those statistics into dimensional people with all of these beautiful traits and values from Cree culture: kindness, goodness, caring, beauty and resilience. I think as much as we were looking forward [by the end of the book], we also want people to look back at this history and think about it differently.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, appeared in the October-November 2023 issue of Zoomer magazine on pg. 88 with the headline, “Monkman’s Moment.”