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For over 20 years, Sid Lee Collective has been a creative incubator that helps fund, produce and exhibit the passion projects of Sid Lee employees and their collaborators. No matter the day job, we believe that everyone benefits when we empower people to create what matters. 


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August 9, 2016
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Turning right out of the elevators on the third floor of the Claire and Marc Bougie Pavilion at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, you find yourself in a gallery dedicated to Canadian Identity. Filled mostly with regal paintings that emerged from early settlers in New France, Indigenous art - both ancient and contemporary - is integrated to tell the true story of colonialism. One such painting stands out: The King’s Beavers by Kent Monkman is a contemporary masterpiece that reappropriates typical colonial style. In the scene, a slaughter occurs. Members of the church, some coureurs des bois, and a few Aboriginals are massacring the beavers. They’re chained up, jailed, and stacked in canoes, it seems almost genocidal.

Kent Monkman - Les Castors Du Roi

Monkman’s sharp wit is evident the closer you examine the details. One beaver cowers in terror behind another with its paws in prayer, holding a rosary, with a tiny beaver jesus on a cross. Dominant motifs in his other work include a gender bending aboriginal in heels and headdress, homosexual acts between colonizer and colonized, and stunning depictions of the Canadian landscape. This powerful narrative and imagery is what lent to Kent Monkman’s rise to the forefront of the Canadian art world. 

Sid Lee Collective had the honour of interviewing this Canadian art star. Read on:


Your works are intricate and layered with symbolism that reference pop culture, history, and identity. How would you define your creative process when it comes to crafting one of your paintings?


Exactly. I develop ideas that draw inspiration from many sources and stitch them together. It could begin with a drawing, etching, sculpture or painting I’ve seen from art history in which I see some relevant themes that relate to contemporary experience. Or I might have a specific historical moment or theme that I want to express so I look to art history for inspiration. The pop culture references come easily once the core concept has been thought through. I think painting has the capacity to convey an enormous range encompassing narrative and emotion.

Kent Monkman - Seeing Red

Was there a defining eureka moment when you discovered your creative talents? A specific experience that made you go: “wow, I’m an artist.” How did you cultivate this? Are there specific heroes or mentors that helped you express this?


I’m fortunate that I developed an artistic identity as a young child, maybe 5 years of age. My family was very supportive, so it grew from there. There was never a question in my mind about whether I was an artist, but I did have to figure out how to get there professionally, and on my own terms. I didn’t know any professional artists when I was younger except the ones I read about in art history books.

Kent Monkman - Clouds in the Canyon

 You have works hanging in the permanent collections of some of the most prestigious galleries in Canada. As of now, which do you consider your masterpiece? In other words, if an alien race came to visit Earth, and you could gift one of your artworks for them to bring back to their home planet, which one would it be?


Ha! That’s a dangerous trick question! I can never answer that because it would certainly diminish everything else I’ve done, if even slightly. I never let anything leave my studio that I don’t feel 100% great about, so can we say they are all masterworks?

Kent Monkman - Montcalms Haircut

Do you think art can bring a truthful rewrite of history? Or will art always be a parody or satire of the "official" textbooks?


Of course I believe art can achieve a truthful alternate perspectives on history. There will always be multiple versions of history, however the dominant one is the authoritative version that we all get programmed with in our school textbooks. But everything is subject to challenge and questioning. The recent findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed the horrifying scope of the residential school system. While these facts were never taught to most Canadian students for generations, now after this commission you could never say it didn’t happen. I’m glad that these findings will finally make their way into school curriculums.

Kent Monkman - Miss Africa

 What inspires you lately? Are you entering a new phase of your artistic expression? What can we expect next from Kent Monkman?


About five years ago I stood in front of an enormous history painting at the Prado and it put a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. The restrained emotional power of this painting reached across a century and moved me in a way I did not expect.  It was such an affirmation that I have been on the right path as an artist -  the medium of painting could exert narrative emotional power so forcefully and beautifully over a hundred years later. For many years I’ve felt that I’m swimming against the current of contemporary art by embracing a language of painting that most contemporary art people discard as irrelevant and obsolete. 

Fifteen years earlier, I felt overwhelmed with the scope of the terrain I was venturing into - revisiting the dark history of colonialism. How do I begin to communicate this and give it the weight and truth that it deserves? I decided to use humour and irony, parody and satire to engage people in a critical dialogue about received narratives and histories of First nations people in the mainstream. This was a careful strategy to disarm a wide audience and to draw them in with their defences down.  The flip side of this strategy was that I did not yet have the painterly skills to convey these narratives more directly, without irony. 

However in the Prado at that moment, I faced an epiphany that foresaw my current body of work. I was maturing as a painter and I could see the potential to embrace a more direct emotional force in my work that was not yet there.  I’m hoping that this current body of work which tackles the last 150 years of Canadian history will bring this new energy and power to my work. Of course, with Miss Chief around, there will always be the trademark doses of humour and satire, but many of these works are weighty and straightforward criticism of Canada’s treatment of First Nations people. Some of the themes of this body of work cover the treaty signings, residential schools, disease, and disproportionate incarceration of First Nations people. Drawing upon the collections of about 12 Canadian institutions and museums 
I will also be curating a vast selection of objects to display alongside my paintings and installations. This exhibition titled, Shame and Prejudice, will open at the University of Toronto's Art Museum, in January 2017.

Kent Monkman - Cree Master

Written by James Alexander Dunphy 

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