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Kent Monkman Walks Canada Back Through Time With ‘Shame And Prejudice: A Story Of Resilience'

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For at least 116 years of Canada’s 150-year history, indigenous children were taken from their parents.

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian,” Canada’s first prime minister said in 1879. “He is simply a savage who can read and write.”

“Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence,” Sir John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons, “and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

At the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, Macdonald’s words hang across from a seven-foot by 11-foot painting of RCMP officers, nuns, and priests wrestling children from their mothers’ arms. The painting’s title is “The Scream.”

“I wanted to reflect on the last 150 years. What has it meant to indigenous people?” Kent Monkman, the Cree artist who made the painting, told The Huffington Post Canada in an interview. “I wanted to offer an alternate perspective ... alternate facts,” he said with a chuckle.

Monkman’s new exhibit, “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience,” will be shown across the country in conjunction with Canada’s 150th birthday. It takes viewers through 300 years of history — from 150 years before Confederation to present day — through the eyes of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s artistic alter ego.

kent monkman shame and prejudice
Cree artist Kent Monkman poses for a photograph at his new exhibition "Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience" in Toronto on Jan. 18, 2017. (Photo: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Massive paintings and historical artifacts present some of Canada’s most tragic chapters:

  • The establishment of reserves and residential schools
  • The near-extinction of bison
  • The illness, violence, and poverty that came along with colonization.

Monkman wanted to “walk us back through time” and “stitch together a counter-narrative that reflected on indigenous experience,” he said.

kent monkman shame and prejudice
Kent Monkman’s painting “The Subjugation of Truth” shows Chief Poundmaker and Chief Big Bear in shackles.

“One of the things that I wanted to achieve was to make history paintings that are reflective of events that have never been authorized to art history.”

“Death of the Virgin (After Caravaggio)” takes its title from a 1606 painting commissioned by monks in Rome. Rather than depicting the Virgin Mary surrounded by apostles, Monkman’s version shows an indigenous woman dying in a modern-day hospital bed, surrounded by loved ones.

kent monkman shame and prejudice
On the left is Caravaggio’s 17th-century painting “Death of the Virgin”. On the right is Cree artist Kent Monkman’s reimagining. (Photos: Louvre/Kent Monkman)

“If you go to hospitals in places like Regina or Winnipeg or Saskatoon, they’re full of indigenous people,” Monkman said. “For me, the fact that so many indigenous people are sick is a direct result of the poor conditions on reserves and various other social problems that stem from intergenerational trauma from residential schools.”

The reaction that “Shame and Prejudice” has already evoked shows how vital indigenous perspectives are, Monkman said.

“I couldn’t have predicted it would have had that kind of effect.”

A photo of “The Scream” posted to Facebook elicited thousands of shares in a matter of days.

“The fact that people responded so viscerally and emotionally to a scene of children being removed from their families, it really represented ... an important part of our history that has never been authorized to our official, dominant art history,” he said.

“I couldn’t have predicted it would have had that kind of effect.”

He hopes the works will not only educate Canadians about our country’s past, but also leave an impact on future generations.

“I wanted my message to reach 150 years into the future as well and communicate things on a deep, human level.”

“Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” is on view at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto for free until March 4, 2017. The exhibit will also be shown at galleries in Calgary, Kingston, Ont., Charlottetown, Halifax, Montreal, Owen Sound, Ont., Winnipeg and Vancouver. For more details, visit Kent Monkman’s website.

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