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Monkman Mischief: How Kent’s “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle” May Prank the Met

Max Hollein “is willing to do bold things; he is willing to disrupt the normative practices of the museum,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, comments approvingly near the beginning of Robin Pogrebin‘s NY Times appraisal of the Metropolitan Museum’s first year under its new director.

The fact that “disrupting normative museum practice” is perceived as a desirably “bold” goal (with Darren Walker as arbiter of taste) shows how far we have strayed from the concept of visual arts institutions as protective custodians and scholarly interpreters of cultural objects and also how readily some museum professionals have surrendered some authority to callow critics who lack their deep art historical knowledge and curatorial expertise. (I can already hear the “OK Boomer” taunts coming my way.)

For me, the most jaw-dropping instance of curatorial (and directorial) trend-chasing was the Met’s announcement that the Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman had been commissioned by the museum to create two monumental paintings for the museum’s Great Hall.

In the words of the Met’s sanitized description of his art: “Monkman’s gender-fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, often appears in his work as a time-traveling, shape-shifting, supernatural being who reverses the colonial gaze to challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples.”

Kent Monkman
Image from
Metropolitan Museum’s announcement

More explicitly, Testickle’s adults-only “mischief,” on display in two museum shows of Native American art that I previously covered for the Wall Street Journal, consists of provocative prurience—not exactly the first impression that you’d want your children to get (in the form of monumental murals) when they set foot in the Met’s immense entrance hall. (Please understand, art-lings, that I’m not advocating censorship, but a more appropriate, less in-your-face placement.)

In my WSJ review of the Peabody Essex Museum’s 2012 Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art, I wrote that the show began “with a rude surprise”: The first wall text that visitors encountered was a parental warning that the introductory work—Monkman’s fiercely satirical, homoerotic “Théâtre de Cristal,” occupying the entire first gallery, might “not be suitable for young children.”

As I described it in the WSJ:

Visitors entering the glitzy enclosure will be confronted by a fleetingly full-frontal silent movie in which the artist’s drag-queen alter ego, “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle” (sic), has “her” way with two white men—drunken hunks clothed (and unclothed) in loincloths.

This heavy-handed, jejune exercise in score-settling, which resonates with the literal meaning of “shapeshifting” in Indian cultures (the ability to transform into other beings), is a jarring start to a thought-provoking show.

Below is my image from Monkman’s full-frontal film fantasy, coyly titled, “Group of Seven Inches.” Projected on a fake buckskin rug, it’s a silent-movie parody of Hollywood Westerns, depicting a romantic encounter between the artist’s drag-queen alter ego (in stiletto heels) and two loin-clothed white men, one of whom is pictured here:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also eyebrow-raising were these objects of erotica that were “worn by Miss Chief Testickle in various performances,” according to their label in the Museum of Arts and Design’s 2012 show, Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation:

Kent Monkman, “Dreamcatcher Bra” & “Racoon Jockstrap,” both 2007
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

So how will Monkman’s “Testickle” test the Met? No details about his work-in-progress have been released in the Met’s press release, but Robin Pogrebin‘s early peek (with photo) in her NY Times piece (online yesterday, but not in the hardcopy until tomorrow) reveals that one of Monkman’s two commissioned paintings “updates [or perhaps, more accurately, backdates] ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware,’ 1851, with indigenous people. His gender-fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, in heels, challenges received notions of history [emphasis added].”

Whether a “gender-fluid” (that is to say, “cross-dressing”) Indian “challenges received notions” of what’s appropriate for the Met’s lobby remains to be seen. From the image on the Times’ website of one of the unfinished pictures, it’s not clear whether this outing will be true to Miss Chief Eagle’s audaciously salacious creed or toned down for a “G” rating, in light of all the schoolchildren who will march past.

What does seem likely is that Monkman’s monumental spoof will satirize one of the most popular paintings in the Met’s collection (hanging in the American Wing, at a safe distance from the Great Hall). “Washington Crossing the Delaware” represents “a great moment in American historical mythology,” as described in the Met’s Audio clip for it. German-American painter Emanuel Leutze felt moved to reimagine this quintessentially American epic some 75 years after the fact. It is thought to have resonated with the spirit of nationalism in both the U.S. and Germany in the mid-19th century.

That Leutze indulged in some historically inaccurate embellishments, as the Met’s audio clip acknowledges (in the quote below), perhaps sets a precedent for Monkman’s 21st-century reset:

The boats are crossing the river in the wrong direction. The ice floes are impossibly large and there were no horses or artillery in the boats which are in any case too light for their loads.

Whatever its flaws, this glorification of General Washington‘s naval adventure is the American Wing’s “Mona Lisa”—a crowd magnet:

Emanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1851
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In messing with this “object of veneration” (as it was described on the Met’s label in January 2012, when I took the above photograph), Monkman’s remake may affront devotees as sacrilege. To be fair, we haven’t yet seen his finished product, so squeamish critics need to keep our counsel until Dec. 19, when the public will be able to see what he’s come up with under the aegis of modern and contemporary art curator Randall Griffey, whose last project got mixed reviews (including mine).

However this plays out, what I wrote here last January bears repeating now: The Met urgently needs to hire a staff curator with expertise in Native American art (including both historic and contemporary). Sylvia Yount, the head of the Met’s American Wing, then told me that she was “committed to hiring” such a curator, “as soon as it is institutionally possible.” The position “has been posted but not yet filled,” a Met spokesperson told me today.

It will be none too soon, I’d say, especially in light of the Met’s having reportedly hired Denise Murrell, an African-American Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Columbia University, as an associate curator for 19th and 20th century art—“noteworthy [in part]…because the Met has been historically lacking in curators of color [emphasis added],” according to Pogrebin’s announcement of the appointment (which has not, at this writing, been announced on the Met’s press website).

Does no one remember Lowery Stokes Sims, the deeply knowledgeable “curator of color” who for 27 years rose through the professional ranks at the Met, ending in December 1999 as a full curator of modern and contemporary art?

After that, she directed the Studio Museum in Harlem and then became curator at the Museum of Arts and Design. That’s where I took this photo in September 2008, when MAD reopened in its current Columbus Circle location:

Lowery Sims at the Museum of Arts and Design
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Given the drive to diversify staff, I suspect that the Met may feel some pressure to hire a Native American to oversee Native American art: We know what happened when the Brooklyn Museum hired a white woman to be its consulting curator for African art.

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