Private Collection, Ontario
Kent Monkman: The Triumph of Mischief, Art Gallery of Hamilton, June 7 - August 26, 2007; exhibition travelled to Toronto (MOCA), Halifax (SMU Art Gallery), Calgary (Glenbow Museum); Victoria (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)
Paul Kane painted Fort Edmonton, the Hudson Bay Company outpost that overlooked the North Saskatchewan River, between 1849 and 1856. Set against a sublime pastoral landscape, Kane’s outpost rests atop a sun-struck hilltop while a grouping of teepees stand below. Kane’s physical placement of the HBC outpost high above the Indigenous community should not be easily dismissed. It suggests a racial hierarchy of European civilization over others and is reflective of their paternalistic treatment toward Indigenous populations. Moreover, Kane’s romanticization of a Christian cross and the flag of empire are further evidence that Fort Edmonton is steeped in colonial ideology.
Nearly 150 years after its completion, Kent Monkman revisits Kane’s painting with his own version of Fort Edmonton. However, in Monkman’s hands, the colonial matrix that drove Kane to produce his work is delegitimized. Though it is also set against the backdrop of Fort Edmonton, Monkman’s painting features a triplicate of queer sex and desire among stallions, glimpsed on a petroglyph, and engaged between a frontier soldier and woodland warrior. Here the viewer doubles as voyeur, peering into a panorama of sex, pornography, and BDSM play. For Monkman, the dominant and submissive relationship extends well beyond the realm of BDSM and into the subjugation of Indigenous peoples in North America. Fort Edmonton’s kink both encapsulates and redresses centuries of sexual oppression and colonial authority. It also challenges existing archetypes of colonialism by recovering agency over how one’s self, one’s family, and one’s people are represented to others.
We thank Matthew Ryan Smith, Ph.D., Curator and Head of Collections at Glenhyrst Art Gallery in Brantford, Ontario, for contributing this essay.