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Debra Levine

Killing as Performance: Violence and the Shaping of Community
Verónica Zebadúa

The Noble Warrior was a Drag Queen
Kerry Swanson

Eréndira a caballo. Acoplamiento de cuerpos e historias en un relato de conquista y resistencia
Ana Cristina Ramirez

The Underskin of the Screen: Performing Embodiment in Through the Looking Glass
Cynthia Bodenhorst

A Critical Regionalism: The Allegorical Performative in Madre por un día
Amy Sara Carroll

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Eduardo Flores Castillo

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Helena Vieira

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[Page 2: The Noble Savage Was a Drag Queen: Hybridity and Transformation in Kent Monkman's Performance and Visual Art Interventions
by Kerry Swanson]

 

Reversing the Colonial Gaze  

Share's taxonomy reverses the gaze of white colonizer and Native subject, using text taken directly from the letters and notes of famous colonial artists George Catlin and Paul Kane, who were two of the most prolific artists in documenting Native peoples and lives during the 19th century.  Both have been highly celebrated in their respective countries, the United States and Canada, for over a century.  In a typical quote from one of his letters, George Catlin writes: "I find that the principal cause why we underrate and despise the savage, is generally because we do not understand him; and the reason why we are ignorant of him and his modes, is that we do not stoop to investigate."9 

In Monkman's performance, it is Share who plays the role of Catlin and his contemporaries, investigating the savage and primitive white man, in an earnest attempt to understand their strange habits, dress, and physical make-up before they become extinct.   The performance immediately highlights how strange and uncivilized the white man is in comparison to the glamorous, immaculately dressed Share. Share takes her complicit models to her studio (the gallery), where she plies them with whiskey, forces them into more European-style clothes, and ultimately exploits her position of power and authority over them by making them pose for her.  In the final act, Monkman's original landscape paintings become a part of the performance, when Share reveals them as the final product of her efforts at the easel.   In this final scene, Share highlights the commodification of the Native that has been generated through image production and consumption.  In turning the tables and becoming the creator of the image, as opposed to the subject, Share further confirms her position of power. 

While Share is still subjected to the gaze of her audience, it is now Monkman, the Native and artist, who controls the image.  In this instance, and in other live performances I have seen by Monkman, Share is the ultimate embodiment of Guy Debord's concept of the spectacle. Debord writes that "[t]he world at once present and absent that the spectacle holds up to view is the world of the commodity dominating all living experience."10  By becoming a commodity producer, Share transforms the role of Native as victim of commodification without denying her past.  The Louis Vuitton and Hudson Bay accessories indicate that she has moved beyond her commodification but maintains her past knowledge of this legacy, again demonstrating the transformative power of her hybridity as a tool for agency, affirmation, and power. 

Renowned Native American performance artist James Luna has said that performance art and installation offer an opportunity like never before for Native artists to express themselves without compromise.11 Part of the freedom that is available to Native artists through performance is access to a continuation of oral storytelling traditions in a modern context.  Performance art as a language and a discipline allows Native artists to speak in a language that is not the colonizer's, and is closer to traditional Indigenous perspectives and worldviews as opposed to European.  Performance, in Monkman's work, allows him to move beyond the colonial language of landscape painting, which he mimics.  As Homi Bhabha argues, mimicry can be a dangerous form of agency that maintains the colonial power structure.12  In occupying the performance art space, Monkman demonstrates that he is aware of the limitations of speaking solely through the language of colonialism. Through performance, Monkman is able not only to reimagine, but to relive colonization with the roles of colonized and colonizer reversed.

He is able to utilize the physical, namely his skin colour, voice, mannerisms and physique, to corporeally demonstrate his occupation of the hybrid and his use of this fragmented identity as a site of cultural power.  Muñoz writes that "identity practices such as queerness and hybridity are not a priori sites of contestation but, instead, spaces of productivity where identity's fragmentary nature is accepted."13  Monkman not only embraces hybridity, he effectively demonstrates its many uses for renegotiating colonial power structures in the here and now.  His performance shows that there is a space where time, space, gender, and race can be embodied as a whole.  Here, he is free to adapt the storytelling and myth-making traditions of both European and Native cultures to create a space for himself, and Native gay and transgendered sexuality, in both the historical past and present.

Humour, Irony, and the Trickster Character

Humour and irony are used heavily to bring audiences into the ruse of Share's performance and to challenge the mock-innocence of the original diarists and painters who expressed pity and childlike fascination for the Indigenous people with one hand, while exploiting them with the other.  The hegemonic power relationship that exists in any colonial relationship is acknowledged through the complicity of the white models; like well-behaved children they dress up for Share, play the piano, and dance.  As in the paintings, in the performance Share is a sexually charged entity, displaying the hyper-femininity of the drag queen with an authority that is distinctly masculine. 

Foucault writes that sexuality is "endowed with the greatest instrumentality: useful for the greatest number of manoeuvres and capable of serving as a point of support, as a linchpin, for the most varied strategies."14  In bringing Share to life, Monkman uses his own sexuality as an instrument of power to support his goal of deconstructing imperial historical constructs.  This is a highly effective strategy that allows him to physically reclaim and affirm the lost history, sexuality, and social status of the Two-Spirited person. 

An androgynous character capable of shape-shifting and time travel, Share's role as a trickster is fundamental to her character.  As trickster, her identity is firmly rooted in both past and present, comprising part of her hybrid identity.  A central figure in Native storytelling, the trickster is a mischievous rebel, a jester who consistently challenges authority and is unbound by the rules of time.  Owens writes, "appropriation, inversion, and abrogation of authority are always trickster's strategies."15  In traditional trickster fashion, Share disarms her audiences with humour while mocking and dismantling their assumptions, in this case regarding the history of Native sexuality and its history. 

By mimicking a colonial structure in the guise of trickster, Share is making it very clear that she is undertaking a process of dismantling, of (re)telling the false stories we have been told and (re)imagining our version of the world.  Thomas King, one of Canada's master trickster storytellers, writes, "[t]he truth about stories is that that's all we are".16  While we cannot change history, we can change, subvert, and dismantle the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories that are told about us.  By affirming the Two-Spirit identity in a historical context, Monkman's  performances retell the story of colonization and create a worldview that pays homage – albeit cheekily – to the traditional values of accepting and honouring sexual diversity, which will be discussed in greater detail further in this paper.  

 

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