Kent Monkman Emerges at NMAI

Photo courtesy Kent Monkman and NMAI

In his first performance in the United States, acclaimed Canadian artist Kent Monkman (Cree) will present a new work featuring his alter ego, Miss Chief, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Monkman’s large-scale paintings, faux-antique photographs, silent films, and performance works subvert official histories of Manifest Destiny and “noble savages.”

In the lavishly staged satire “Miss Chief: Justice of the Piece,” Miss Chief—the glamorous, powerful, mythical alter ego of artist Kent Monkman—as well as a host of other performers, illuminate policies that determine Native American identity. Unlike other populations in North America, Indians are defined not solely by self-designation, but by laws (some originating from archaic notions of biological race such as blood quantum) that measure one’s heredity by percentages. Miss Chief has decided to take the ultimate political stand against these laws and create her own nation and is looking for members. But, as is common with Miss Chief, her invitation is a grand event.

Photo courtesy Kent Monkman and NMAI

Miss Chief, who first appears in 2002 in Kent Monkman’s painting, “Portrait of the Artist as a Hunter” (National Gallery of Canada), is also the subject of a group of photographs in NMAI’s permanent collection—”The Emergence of a Legend” (2007)—recently exhibited in Washington, DC in “Vantage Point: The Contemporary Native Art Collection (2010-11).” Miss Chief is two-spirited, a third-gender embodying both male and female attributes honored by many traditional Indian communities for centuries. Called the Berdash (the French word given for third gender), they were disdained by European Americans, and nearly written out of history. But Kent Monkman’s works ensure that the Berdash lives on in his witty portrayals of Miss Chief.

Kent Monmkan’s paintings and photographs are exquisitely rendered in the romantic/realist style of the 19th century, making the appearance of Miss Chief in them hilariously incongruous. “The Emergence of a Legend” series portrays Miss Chief in some of her many guises—a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; a vaudeville dancer, a silent-film starlet, and a director of Hollywood westerns. These meticulously staged photos re-envision the history of Indians performing for non-Indians.

The live performance of “Miss Chief: Justice of the Piece” will be preceded by three of Kent Monkman’s award-winning short videos/films— Dance to Miss Chief (2010), a playful critique of German fascination with North American Indians set to club track music; Mary (2011), shot in über-glam shampoo-commercial style and featuring Miss Chief in an irreverent reinterpretation of treaties that challenges the meaning of “surrender”; and Shooting Geronimo (2007) a spoof of famed romantic photographer Frederick Curtis shooting a film about Geronimo just outside the Long Horn Saloon.

The performance runs from 6 to 8 pm tomorrow evening at NMAI, located on the National Mall at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW. Recommended for mature audiences.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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