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


(Re)Constructing Sexuality and Culture

Foucault argues that sexuality is a not a "natural given," but rather a historical construct in which physical stimulation and pleasure are controlled and manipulated according to the dominant power structures and ideologies.17  In the tradition of Foucault, Monkman approaches his examination of native sexuality by examining the existing power relations of colonial North America.  Native North Americans are still living in a colonial world in which their traditional lands, cultures, and identities remain colonized; therefore, Monkman makes no clear differentiation between past and present, as Native lives and identities continue to be shaped by the colonial power structure as it existed in the 19th century.  Monkman's work addresses and bridges the ongoing relationship between the colonial past and the colonial present, and also confronts the significant lack of discourse and knowledge regarding the history of Two-Spirited people and their suppression through Christian indoctrination.

Prior to colonization, many of the North American tribes including the Cree, Ojibwe, Mohave, Navajo, Lakota, and Winnebago, honoured Two-Spirited people as accepted and even sacred members of tribal society.18   Monkman's work returns to the source of the original propaganda that culminated in modern stereotypes about Native peoples, thereby revealing and challenging the subjectivity of the artists and their self-serving mythologizing.  By returning to the site of colonization, Monkman works to decolonize Native sexuality by offering up an alternative to the accepted version of history, an alternative that also happens to be closer to the realities of the period.

Often tied to the creation stories of the tribe, the concept of Two-Spiritedness is not centred on the physical act of sex; it is the European worldview which essentializes sexuality in physiological terms.  Historically, many tribes gave credence to the existence of what ethnographer Sue-Ellen Jacobs calls "the third gender," which is as much a spiritual as it is a physical state of being.  The Cree word ayekkwew, for example, means "neither man nor woman" or "man and woman".19  This is a fitting example for a study of Monkman, who embodies both gender and racial hybridity as a fundamental aspect to his identity and work. Monkman refers to these traditions, and his alter-ego is likewise androgynous, resisting black or white identity markers with her medium-toned skin and careful balance of male and female.

As mentioned in the introduction to this essay, the modern term, Two-Spirit, reflects the concept that a person can house both the male and female spirit in one body, that not every individual can be categorized in a heterosexual way.   The term "Two Spirit" has gained popularity within the Native gay community because it reflects an Indigenous worldview and rejects the previous white/colonial term of "berdache" which was used to describe traditional Native Two-Spirit individuals, and the Arabic roots of which imply the meaning of male sodomized slave.20 

As mentioned, Monkman's use of performance is particularly suitable to relaying the Two-Spirit concept of "undefinability," as the artist is able to utilize the masculine elements of his physique, voice, and mannerisms, along with the hyper-feminine modus operandi of the drag queen, in a physical incarnation not possible on canvas.  Bhabha writes that freedom exists in a decolonization of the imagined spaces created by colonizers and imperialists and that those who are marginalized must create a "third space."21  Like the third gender, the third space is a free zone that exists somewhere beyond the margins of definable cultures or identities and their inherent limitations.  This is the space occupied by the hybrid Share, who, as trickster, cannot be defined or bound by time, sex, or geography. 

The Suppression of Native Sexuality in Hegemonic North America

The diversity of Native sexuality in pre-colonized North America is seldom mentioned or illustrated in mainstream art and media, although we know that it existed.  In her groundbreaking anthropological work, Jacobs researched centuries of written documents for references to the third gender or Two-Spirited people in Native North American tribes.  Out of 99 tribes, 88 referred to Two-Spirited culture, including both male and female homosexuality or transgender. In 19th-century Europe, however, views towards non-heterosexual practices were extremely different.  Foucault writes that by this time:

Nothing that was not ordered in terms of generation or transfigured by it could expect sanction or protection.  Nor did it merit a hearing.  It would be driven out, denied, and reduced to silence. Not only did it not exist, it had no right to exist and would be made to disappear upon its least manifestation – whether in acts or in words.22

The diverse sexual practices of Native people were quickly suppressed by Christian European colonizers – with remaining repercussions.  In Jacobs's research on modern tribes, "eleven tribes denied any homosexuality to the anthropologists and other writers."  The denials came from tribes with the longest history of contact with white Christian cultures that severely punished homosexuality.23

Foucault defines power as a relationship forged through a series of tactics, in which both the subject and object are complicit.24  At a time when the Indigenous populations of the Americas were being swiftly killed off, both through war and disease, the denial of beliefs that made them further vulnerable to persecution was a tactic of survival.  Under the heavy influence and rhetoric of Christianity, many tribes had also "become ashamed of the [Two-Spirit] custom because the white people thought it was amusing or evil."25  As a result, many individual tribes suppressed their long-held beliefs and denied the expression of sexual diversity, taking on the Christian worldview that held any sexual practices other than heterosexuality as deviant. Just as shamanism became taboo, so too did homosexuality. 

What was once deemed sacred and spiritual became something to hide and be ashamed of.  As a mode of self-protection and self-preservation, a hegemonic power relationship was forged between the Native population and the white rulers. Trinh T. Minh-ha writes that "[h]egemony is most difficult to deal with because it does not really spare any of us.  Hegemony is established to the extent that the worldview of the rulers is also the worldview of the ruled".26  This is the challenge faced by Monkman, who through his work attempts to reclaim a worldview that has been suppressed, from both sides, by centuries of colonial rule.   By incorporating elements of Native, European, colonial, and modern cultures and traditions, the artist references the complexities of the present hegemonic colonial landscape, where the boundaries between "us" and "them," "then" and "now," are blurred.

Sexuality as "Divine" Intervention

In the meticulously rendered landscape paintings that preceded his performance art debut and gave birth to Share, Monkman steps back to the very point in time when colonial mythmaking and sexual suppression is beginning to take shape.  Share debuts, literally with a bang, in the 2001 painting Heaven and Earth, in which she sodomizes a muscular frontiersman under a halo of celestial light that announces the mythological proportions of the event. 

  Heaven and Earth, Kent Monkman

Monkman aligns the mythologizing of the American frontier with the epic mythology of ancient Rome and Greece.27  The light signifies the arrival of a new dawn, in which Native peoples reclaim their sexual identities and their authority over their own history.  It also alludes to a literal coming-out, both from the shadows of historical marginality and from the shadows of Monkman's past work, which depicted ambiguous homoerotic characters barely discernible under heavy Cree text.  

In Heaven and Earth, Share is distinctly masculine; her femininity and persona as the artist's alter-ego emerge as the series progresses.  It is through the act of performing sexuality that Share comes into her own existence and that the artist recognizes himself in her.  The series also begins with more ambiguities than Share's gender; this first scene could be interpreted as an act of rape or as a complicit act.  This is an interesting point, given Foucault's notion of complicity as being a necessary component of power.  Share is using her sexuality as a site of power, and stamping her authority on land, culture, and history; yet there is the suggestion that perhaps her partner is ready. Performance plays heavily in the painting, as sex is performed as a function of transformation; Share's act insists on the existence of queer Native identity on the colonial landscape.

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