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Cree Decree: Monkman Debunks U.S. Creation Myths in His Metropolitan Museum Commission (video)

In my skeptical post last month about Cree artist Kent Monkman‘s plan to subvert a national object of veneration in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection—Emanuel Leutze‘s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”—I recklessly ventured some premature commentary:

Monkman’s remake may affront devotees [of Leutze’s epic painting] as sacrilege. To be fair, we haven’t yet seen his finished product, so squeamish critics [emphasis added] 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.

This “squeamish critic” has now eyeballed “Resurgence of the People” and “Welcoming the Newcomers,” the two monumental acrylic paintings that together constitute his ambitious magnum opus—mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People)”—that dominates the Met’s Great Hall (to Apr. 9):

Kent Monkman, “Resurgence of the People,” 2019
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Kent Monkman, on left, chatting with Met visitors beneath his “Welcoming the Newcomers,” 2019
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As it turns out, the Met-commissioned diptych is more visually intriguing and intellectually thought-provoking than the silly, salacious Monkmans (none of which were paintings) that I had seen in previous surveys of contemporary Native American art. The Met work is also salacious, but less lecherous than others that have recently issued from Monkman’s studio (including this 2019 work, reproduced on his website).

More significant than “Wooden Boat People’s” salaciousness is its audaciousness: At the Met, Monkman has flipped our national narrative, so that history’s conquered have become fantasy’s conquerors.

Rising to the occasion of being the first artist commissioned to create work for the Great Hall, Monkman riffs not only on Leutze’s romanticized (and somewhat fictional) take on George Washington, but also on other famous examples of American and European art in the Met’s collection. Those illustrious models are identified and illustrated in both the exhibition’s labels and its blog post on the museum’s website—Kent Monkman Reverses Art History’s Colonial Gaze by Randall Griffey, curator of modern and contemporary art, who advocated for Monkman’s commission at the Met after visiting his Toronto studio in Summer 2018.

Griffey told me that what had particularly impressed him about Monkman was “the degree to which his work is really grounded in research….As provocative as his work can be, it comes out of deep-rooted, sustained research.”

Addressing the scribe tribe at the press preview on Tuesday, Monkman wielded a laser pointer to target the parallels between his two paintings, including their use of the eponymous “Wooden Boat”:

Kent Monkman, addressing journalists at the press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In “Resurgence” (pictured at the top), the “Wooden Boat People” of the title are idyllically harmonious Native Americans, under the divine guidance of Monkman’s gender-fluid, high-heeled alter ego, “Miss Chief Eagle Testikle.” That name is said to be a pun on “mischief” and “egotistical,” but who are they kidding? Befitting the decorum of the Met’s main entry hall, Miss Chief’s “testickles” are discreetly veiled by a flowing red sash, echoing the one worn by Leutze’s George Washington, who strikes a similarly heroic (albeit fully clothed) pose:

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

In “Welcoming the Newcomers,” a desperate group of white “Wooden Boat People” is seen in the painting’s upper right, precariously clinging to the capsized vessel while being menaced by a shark, whose black fin juts above the churning waters:

Detail from “Welcoming the Newcomers,” 2019
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

With Miss Chief improbably balanced on her signature high heels while pulling a shackled slave from the waters, Monkman’s work could appropriately be retitled: “Miss Chief Cross(dress)ing the Delaware.” The work—at once campy and serious—feels hokey in the deification of its subject. Then again, you could say the same about Leutze’s treatment of George Washington and his band of revolutionaries.

In “Resurgence,” whites are again placed in a precarious position, fecklessly flaunting their guns while marooned on a tiny island that looks about to be flooded (an allusion to the havoc of climate change). What I didn’t notice, peering at the upper-left corner of the painting from a disadvantaged vantage point, far below, is that the militant on the right (who is seated on the island, beneath his cohorts) is flashing what has come to be known as a white-supremacy hand signal.

I only perceived that when reviewing my photos on my computer screen:

The installation might have been more thought-provoking (and eyebrow-raising) if the straight “Washington Crossing the Delaware” were temporarily removed from its usual spot and hung on the wall directly opposite Monkman’s transgressive take.

It’s tucked away at the far end of a long hall in the American Wing, a considerable slog from the Great Hall. You can barely catch sight of it in the distant background, behind the guard in this photo:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A visit to the American Wing also reveals that the Met has added “Native Perspectives” labels to certain objects and paintings that pertain to the Native American experience. (You can see images of the objects that the text contributed by Native Americans here.) Many of these labels could have used a good editor to make them more coherent, but that would have involved politically incorrect tampering with the “native perspectives.”

Here’s one example, followed by an image of the sculpture that it analyzes, as seen in the Met’s Engelhard Court:

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, “Hiawatha,” 1871-72, carved in 1874
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s the Met-authored label for the same sculpture:

If you crave an African American perspective on “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the Met will soon show Jacob Lawrence‘s take, as part of its upcoming “Struggle . . . From the History of the American People”—a display (originating at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem) of “a striking and little-known series of paintings by the esteemed American modernist,” in the words of the Met’s press release:

 Jacob Lawrence, “Struggle Series—No. 10: Washington Crossing the Delaware” (detail), 1954, Collection of Metropolitan Museum

I’m convinced of “Wooden Boat People’s” artistic merits and its contemporary relevance (including its resonance with today’s immigration controversies and gender-identity conflicts, not to mention the continued struggles of Native Americans). But I’m still uneasy about its Great Hall placement, by which the Met has privileged an intentionally inflammatory inversion of the national narrative. Is this the first thing that we want foreign tourists and young schoolchildren to see upon entering our country’s premier art museum?

Have a closer look and form your own opinions. In my CultureGrrl Video, below, Monkman explains the native perspective that informs his own work. But in the end, all this analysis may hardly matter: After hearing the artist’s musings, you’ll see how little his work seems to register on regular visitors as they check their coats and heedlessly walk through the hall.

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