‘Genius’ or ‘Amoral’? Artist’s Latest Angers Indigenous Canadians


Many First Nations, Metis and Inuit Canadians consider Justin Trudeau, after more than four years as prime minister, as little better than the other white colonial leaders who have oppressed them for the past 150 years.

His only Indigenous cabinet minister quit and his government approved pipelines across Indigenous territory, despite dissent and protests.

But still, that sentiment had not prepared even some of Mr. Trudeau’s sharpest critics for a painting by the celebrated Canadian Cree artist, Kent Monkman.

Titled “Hanky Panky,” Mr. Monkman’s painting depicts the prime minister on his hands and knees with his pants down as a crowd of Indigenous women looks on, laughing. Behind him is the artist’s alter ego, wearing knee-high stiletto boots and a long feather headdress.

The image suggests themes of sexual violence and humiliation. And instead of cheers, the painting, released on social media this month, has inspired anger among many Indigenous people who say Mr. Monkman has gone too far.

Critics have described the painting as culturally degrading “revenge porn” that equates rape with retribution.

The outcry was a sharp reminder that while Canada is under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s existential crisis over the historic abuse of Indigenous people — and their continued overrepresentation in jails, foster homes, morgues, missing persons lists and poverty statistics — is still simmering.

“I don’t like the colonial government and don’t like things Justin Trudeau has said and done, but I would never wish sexual violence on anyone,” said jaye simpson, an Indigenous trans-woman and writer from Vancouver, who was among the piece’s vocal critics. (Ms. simpson chooses not to use capitalization in her name.)

Mr. Trudeau rose to power in 2015 with the promise to make “reconciliation” with the country’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit people central to his government. Since then, he has added another ministry to deal with Indigenous issues, proposed changing the citizenship oath to include a commitment to treaties with Indigenous people and worked toward providing clean water to First Nations reserves.

“That’s what Monkman does: He takes an image and flings it in your face,” said Patty Krawec, an Ojibwe-Ukrainian podcaster in Niagara Falls who worked in a sexual assault center for years. “But in this one, he’s made us complicit in this violence. If this is retribution, how dare you make me complicit in that?”

Mostly, his pieces are historical paintings that subvert classical works by inserting Indigenous figures and stories. They often include his bawdy gender-bending alter ego, whom he has called “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.”

Though he has said his paintings are meant to shock people and provoke questions, the visceral response to his latest piece surprised him.

“I wish for my work to resist the colonial traumas inflicted upon my own family and so many others for generations, not to perpetuate harm,” Mr. Monkman wrote on Facebook, offering an apology.

While Mr. Monkman had a relatively privileged upbringing in Winnipeg, with a Cree father and white mother, he has said he identified strongly with his paternal great-grandmother, who lived with them.

Mr. Monkman runs his Toronto studio as Renaissance masters ran theirs. Apprentices work on his large pieces while he designs the concept and oversees the process.

“That’s the power imbalance,” said Lindsay Nixon, editor-at-large of Canadian Art magazine and a queer Indigenous art historian in Toronto.

“There’s this younger generation who are saying, ‘We feel so shocked and misrepresented by these images and this millionaire figure living in this very rich neighborhood of Toronto who is very disconnected from these communities that he purports to represent,’” she said.

He added, “Is he a moral agent, or is he an amoral artist?”

One of Mr. Monkman’s early buyers and boosters, Bruce Bailey, said he did not think Mr. Monkman should have apologized for this work.

“We cannot have censorship due to the sensitivity of the public,” said Mr. Bailey, who is white, and who said most of Mr. Monkman’s buyers were aging white gay men. “Once you give into the public mob, there is no more freedom of expression.”

Mr. Trudeau’s office declined to comment on the piece. And for the moment, some Indigenous people in Canada have been willing to accept Mr. Monkman’s apology.

“We’ll see what happens with his next piece,” Ms. Krawec said.

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