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Kerry Swanson

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The Noble Savage Was a Drag Queen: Hybridity and Transformation in Kent Monkman's Performance and Visual Art Interventions
by Kerry Swanson


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The idea of the North American Indian man – stoic, primitive, dark, Other – can be largely credited to the epic paintings of celebrated 19th-century white European-American artists whose work remains housed in the national institutions and galleries of Europe, America, and Canada.  In their romanticized landscapes of the New World, colonial artists such as George Catlin, Albert Bierdstadt, and the Hudson River school of painters mythologized the "dying" race of Red Men while propagating their own personas as heroic adventurers in a wild, undiscovered land.  The iconography created in these works and those that followed, which depicted the Indian man as the doomed noble savage, are among what the late Native theorist Louis Owens called the "hyperreal."1  

These paintings gave birth to an imaginary Indian – the highly masculinized noble savage – that became the popular model for authenticity, challenging the identities of all those who did not fit into this limiting construct. They created a mythology that cast the Native people of the period, and therefore those who followed, as either brutal animalistic warriors, or sad victims of Darwinian destiny.  In a current body of work that is gaining attention both in Canada and internationally, Canadian Cree visual and performance artist Kent Monkman challenges this imagery, and the mainstream Christian version of history perpetuated by 19th-century colonial artists, by appropriating their landscapes, language, and propaganda to create a space for himself, and queer identity, in the story of the early Wild West.  In Monkman's version of history, his half-breed drag-queen alter-ego, Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, runs riot on the unspoilt vistas of the 19th century, affirming her existence and (re)negotiating her queer sexual power. 

Prior to colonization, queer identity (known in Native communities as Two-Spirit in honour of the existence of both the male and female spirit in one body) was widely accepted among many different North American tribes,2 although this fact has been virtually eliminated from historical renderings of the period.  Through his humorous and provoking interventions, Monkman reclaims that history and, using Foucault's concept of sexuality as a site of cultural power, insists on the existence and continued survival of queer Native identities.

In the performance art piece Traveling Gallery and European Male Emporium, which emerged from the series of paintings entitled Eros and Empire, Monkman celebrates and utilizes the concept of hybridity to offer an alternative mythology that transforms the prevailing fixed and static notions of Native sexuality, identity, and history.  Jose Muñoz writes: "Hybrid catches the fragmentary subject formation of people whose identities traverse different race, sexuality, and gender identifications."3 

Identifying as mixed-race/mixed-gender in his work, Monkman effectively embodies and applies the concept of hybridity as a method for cultural navigation, demonstrating its transformative power in creating new identities and historical perspectives. Homi Bhabha argues that by occupying a hybrid space, the colonized can renegotiate the terms of colonization, effectively moving beyond the identity constructs that have been created around him/her.4  Through his alter-ego Share, the ultimate hybrid who incorporates past and present, male and female, Native and white, Monkman renegotiates the terms of power in Western society and seizes the most powerful and transformative role available: the role of storyteller.

Introducing Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle's European Male Emporium

Share Eagle Testickle is a glamorous character who flounces around the 19th-century past/present in an ankle-length feather headdress, Louis Vuitton quiver, and spiked heels.  Partly spoofing gay pop icon Cher, particularly during the period of her 1970's hit song "Half-Breed," Monkman's persona plays with Native stereotypes, pop culture, and queer culture.  Appearing first in Monkman's 2004 landscape paintings, a nondescript early incarnation of a prototype Share morphs into the artist himself as the series progresses. As Share's persona becomes more undeniably linked to that of the artist himself, Monkman gives his alter-ego a physical incarnation in his first "colonial art space intervention," Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle's Traveling Gallery and European Male Emporium. Staged in August 2004 at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, famous for housing many of the works of Canada's Group of Seven painters, Share's tableau vivant focused on the Group of Seven landscape paintings and the Edward Curtis film, In the Land of the Headhunters.  The Group of Seven refers to Canada's renowned white landscape painters of the early- to mid-20th century, whose paintings mythologized the Canadian landscape as wild and untouched by human contact.  The Group of Seven are part of the Canadian colonial establishment, and their work is considered to mark the beginning of "Canadian art," thus obliterating the importance and existence of Native Canadian artists and their preceding work.   

In his challenge on Canada's institutional "untouchable" artists, Monkman announces his subversive agenda.  He challenges not only the white artists who claimed Canada's landscapes as their own private discoveries, but also the institutions that have, until very recently, chosen to exclude Native perspectives in their galleries.   In a recent article profiling Monkman in Canadian Art Magazine, David Liss explains the significance of choosing the McMichael Gallery and the Group of Seven as the site of intervention for Share's debut performance:

As the premier home of the art of the Group of Seven, the McMichael is significant in the accepted canon of what constitutes Canadian identity, or at least one version that is readily identifiable.  As an institutional gatekeeper, the McMichael exercises a certain power over what is included and what is not.  The Group's romanticized depiction of Canadian landscape as an unpopulated, undiscovered wilderness is not lost on Monkman, who regards history as a mythology forged from relationships of power and subjugation.5

In this performance, Share arrives on the back of a white horse, resplendent in elaborate headdress, Louis Vuitton and Hudson Bay Company accessories, and cartoonish drag-queen heels.  On her way into the gallery space, she entices two young white men dressed in loincloths, who become the subjects of her "taxonomy of the European male." Bringing to mind the work of Mexican mestizo performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña, whose work is heavily infused with humour and a taste for the ironic, Monkman's Share is performed with a wink and a nudge, allowing mainstream audiences access to the larger theme of cultural subjectivity and bias, while leaving those without specific historical and cultural knowledge on the outside of some of the subtler messages and references. 

Just as Gomez Peña's romantic Mexican stereotype "El Mariachi Liberace" creates an exaggerated caricature as a method of subverting mainstream stereotypes,6 Monkman's Share reveals the ridiculousness and subjectivity of colonial artists who created mainstream Native mythologies through their work.  Like Gomez-Peña, Monkman uses his hybrid, mixed-race identity to his advantage, demonstrating his authority and power as cross-cultural navigator. Lisa Wolford writes that Gomez-Peña's work is characterized by a type of artistic and political strategy that he describes as "reverse anthropology,"7 which Monkman also effectively employs.  By virtually travelling back in time in order to occupy the romantic landscapes and scenes that became the source of manly noble Native stereotypes, Monkman claims them as his own territory – a territory free of the borders of time and space, where he is the master of his own history, sexuality, and identity. 

Muñoz writes that masculinity is "a cultural imperative to enact a mode of power that labours to invalidate, exclude, and extinguish faggots, effeminacy, and queerly coated butchness."8  In the creation and performance of Share, Monkman refutes the static and masculinized imagery of the Indian; his location in the present/past allows him to speak from within but beyond the boundaries and confines that have kept this image in the fixed past for over a century.

 

 

 

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