“Coonskin caps for Christmas! I was a kid in mid-20th-century America. The biggest cultural event I can remember from early childhood was Walt Disney’s gigantically popular “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter” on TV. The first installment of a serial, which debuted on Dec. 15, 1954, it was basically about the exploits of a Tennessee backwoods gun-for-hire, and promoted nostalgia for the days when the Wild West was ‘won’ from indigenous peoples”. H. Cotter, The New York Times
“A verse of the theme song, which was everywhere on the radio, went:
Andy Jackson is our gen’ral’s name
His reg’lar soldiers we’ll put to shame
Them redskin varmints us Volunteers’ll tame
‘Cause we got the guns with the surefire aim
Davy, Davy Crockett, the champion of us all!
Andy Jackson was, of course, Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, whose 1830 signing of the Indian Removal Act led to the Trail of Tears, and whose portrait now hangs, at the request of the 45th and sitting president [Trump], in the Oval Office of the White House.
All this came back to mind when I saw “The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikosiwak (Wooden Boat People)” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The second in a continuing series of contemporary works sponsored by the Met, it consists of two monumental new paintings by the Canadian artist Kent Monkman, installed on either side of the museum’s main entrance in the soaring Great Hall.
The paintings are pretty stupendous. Each measuring almost 11 feet by 22 feet, they are multi-figured narratives, inspired by a Euro-American tradition of history painting but entirely present-tense in theme and tone. And both are unmistakably polemical, suggesting that with this and other commissions — an earlier one, sculptures by the Kenyan-born artist Wangechi Mutu, is still in place on the museum’s Fifth Avenue facade — certain winds of change could be blowing through the Met’s art-temple precincts.
Mr. Monkman, 54, is one of Canada’s best-known contemporary artists, and one who has stirred controversy on his home ground. Of mixed Cree and Irish heritage, he has made the violence done under European occupation, to North America’s first peoples, a central subject of his work.
But he has also, crucially, flipped a conventional, disempowering idea of Native victimhood on its head.
His paintings, done in a crisply realistic, highly detailed, somewhat cut-and-paste illustrational style, are far from grim… the image of the artist himself in the guise of his alter ego, a buff, cross-dressing, gender-fluid tribal leader named Miss Chief Eagle Testickle…Miss Chief is an avatar of a global future that will see humankind moving beyond the wars of identity — racial, sexual, political — in which it is now perilously immersed.
The most radical aspect of his work in the context of the Met — an ‘encyclopedic’ museum thoroughly Western in attitude — is that it presents a view of art history through the eyes of the Other, in this case Native Americans and people of Canada’s First Nations. The shift in cultural positioning begins with the exhibition title.
Mistikosiwak, or Wooden Boat People, was a Cree name for European settlers arriving in what is now North America. One of the two paintings, Welcoming the Newcomers, depicts such an arrival, with Native people greeting strangers at the Atlantic shore.
But the scene is less a reception than a rescue. A capsized boat is visible in the distance… Several of the painting’s Indigenous figures are based on examples of 19th-century art in the Met’s collection. Among them are sculptures like ‘Mexican Girl Dying’ by Thomas Crawford (1846), on view in the museum’s American Wing, and paintings like Eugène Delacroix’s ‘The Natchez,’ in the 19th- and early 20th-Century
European galleries. Each of the originals perpetuates the myth of the Native Americans as a vanishing people, doomed to disappear, a fiction that usefully underpinned and fueled another myth, that of Western ‘Manifest Destiny.’
On the left: A detail from Eugène Delacroix’s “The Natchez,” 1823-24 and 1835. The scene was inspired by a romantic novel in which the infant born to a Native couple is doomed to die.Credit The Metropolitan Museum of Art
On the right:A detail from Kent Monkman’s “Resurgence of the People” updates Delacroix’s pessimistic image by depicting a healthy baby in the arms of a same-sex Indigenous couple. CreditKent Monkman
In Mr. Monkman’s paintings, Indigenous people are, for the most part, proactive figures, shaping the world around them, which doesn’t mean he ignores the catastrophes that followed the European occupation… when he depicts the figure of a child apparently sick and dying in his mother’s arms, he lifts the figure from a painting of “The Massacre of the Innocents” by the European artist Francois Joseph Navez.
Mr. Monkman’s image of the child — a reference to the damage done by the forced placement of Indigenous children in white-run boarding schools — appears in the second Met-commissioned painting, ‘Resurgence of the People.’ Here we are in an imagined future. Centuries have passed since “Welcoming the Newcomers.” Terrible things have happened to the planet. The only remaining bit of solid earth is an island guarded by armed white nationalists and soon to be submerged by a churning oil-slicked sea.
Indigenous people now command an open boat, of a kind familiar from contemporary news photos of refugees. People rescued in the first painting are now rescuers themselves, pulling in and tending to whoever swims toward them, including a white businessman wearing a chunky gold watch and Hermès tie. All of the boat’s rowers are Indigenous; more than half are women dressed in contemporary traditional styles…And once again Miss Chief presides over all, leads the way forward.
She’s modeled on the title figure in Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” one of the Met’s most popular American art attractions… Even in the Met’s two-story-high Great Hall, the two pictures read clearly, vividly, particularly “Resurgence of the People” with its more organic composition, toothsome colors, and skillfully managed use of painted light…If the museum intends to sustain this engagement, as seems likely under its current director, Max Hollein, commissioned projects like this one (and Ms. Mutu’s) are one way to go, leaving trophy displays of celebrity collectibles to art fairs.”
The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikosiwak (Wooden Boat People)
Through April 9 2020 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.
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