mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People)
When it comes to Western painting, size matters a great deal. And that’s not just because large canvases can be ostentatious signs of opulence. Since the Renaissance, the size of a painting has dictated the nature of its subject. History, mythology, and religion—important humanist subjects—commanded the largest canvases. Smaller ones were routinely reserved for scenes of a commercial nature like landscapes, portraits of animals, and still-life compositions. More than a simple economic convention, the relationship between subject and canvas size, along with the hierarchy of genres it solidified, functioned as a visual code. At a glance, the size of a painting told the viewer if it had something important to say. By the nineteenth century, this convention was so commonplace for those who regularly visited art museums that the wrong combination of subject and size could be enough to stir up a colossal scandal. Unconventional works of art were either seen as a deliberate insult to the public, or as an irreverent disrespect to the academician and the connoisseur.
It was the scale of Gustave Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans, which offended more than its subject: the funeral of a working-class “nobody.” Measuring 11’ x 22’, the painting promised history, but it delivered everyday life at its ugliest (as the commentators of the time saw it). Times have moved on, and over the past two hundred years, art audiences have been offended by much more than the size of a canvas, although these classical conventions still condition our reception of art today.
It is in this context that two monumental paintings by Kent Monkman, a Cree artist, were commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The works challenge viewers through a reconfiguration of Indigenous identity and representation. Prominently placed in the museum’s Great Hall, measuring 11’ x 22’, the paintings command attention and generate expectations about their subject. Like Courbet’s infamous funeral, Monkman’s works deliberately confuse history and the present, the mundane and mythologization. However, today, these paintings do not offend. While Courbet’s A Burial was designed to make people think about the self-imposed limitations of art, Monkman’s are designed to make us think about the self-imposed cultural limitations that define our history and that will impact our future.
The two paintings titled Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People form a diptych called mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People). Mistikôsiwak is the Cree name for European settlers arriving at what is now known as North America during the seventeenth century. In both works, a self-portrait of the artist incarnated as his gender-fluid alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle steals the scene. In the first, they are seen on land, helping various castaways. They stare back at the viewer with a somewhat uneasy mix of reckoning and uncertainty in their eyes, as if aware that their benevolence will be ultimately betrayed. In the other, what’s left of the land has been conquered by white, armed nationalists, and Indigenous people crammed in a boat confidently sail away, across an oil-slicked, choppy sea, led by Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. They look ahead into the distance, hopeful.
Monkman’s paintings are deliberately filled with quotations from classical artworks in The Met’s collection. Throughout the research stage for this ambitious project, the artist perused the collection for representations of Indigenous peoples in order to recontextualize romanticized or violent representations from the past. Thomas Crawford’s white neoclassical marble sculpture, Mexican Girl Dying (1846–48) and Emanuel Leutze’s monumental painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) are only two of the many works cited in Monkman’s works. Not quite the kind of artistic appropriation we have become used to in the context of Pop Art, Monkman’s gesture is simultaneously an homage to an artistic tradition he treasures and a correction of the representational tropes that have objectified Indigenous peoples.
The apocalyptic theme that links the two canvases is also clearly instrumental to Monkman’s bridging of past and present. Among others, scholars like Kim Tallbear or Grace Dillon, and novelist Waubgeshig Rice have pointed out that Indigenous people have been post-apocalyptic for centuries; that they have already lived through, and survived, multiple waves of enormous cultural and environmental devastation. It is in this context that rising sea levels and the visible precarity of the land in both paintings by Monkman overtly allude to an apocalyptic cyclicality in the histories of First Nations. The second painting, Resurgence of the People, while seemingly more ominous-looking than the first, however, inscribes a sense of hope that a more balanced and diverse future might emerge from the catastrophic failures of colonialist powers.
Rather interestingly, the paintings ultimately envision a continuity between past and future, between European and Indigenous cultures. Far from inviting simplistic, culturally divisive rhetoric of the kind that right now abounds on social media, Monkman’s work points to the histories of cross-cultural contacts and exchanges that, for better or worse, define his life as an Indigenous artist making work for contemporary global audiences. The monumentality of Monkman’s paintings is not only well suited to the subject but also plays an important role in attracting attention to a subject that truly deserves it.