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ICYMI: A Miss Chief lens

Kent Monkman's solo exhibition closes at the ROM next month. Read our October 2022 story before it does.

Kent Monkman, I Come From pâkwankîsik, the Hole in the Sky

Kent Monkman, I Come From pâkwankîsik, the Hole in the Sky, 2022. Acrylic on canvas. 36”x27". Image courtesy of the artist

On October 8, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) unveiled a brand-new major exhibition conceived by acclaimed Cree artist Kent Monkman. Being Legendary places 35 new paintings by Monkman alongside fossils, meteorites and other select pieces from the ROM’s collection in a grand re-telling of history – from an Indigenous perspective.     

“With Being Legendary, I am exploring how Indigenous presence and knowledge is embedded in this land much longer and deeper than how it’s been presented in the colonial version of history here on Turtle Island,” says Kent Monkman. “Using storytelling, this exhibition refers to the interruption of knowledge caused by the colonial attempts to erase us, but it also talks about life before Europeans arrived and how leaders in our communities shine a path for us to move forward into the future.”

As in several Monkman’s earlier works, Being Legendary casts his alter ego – Miss Chief Eagle Testickle – as the story’s narrator and central character. In the exhibition’s first section, visitors enter the cosmos via two large-scale works depicting Miss Chief floating through the stars at the moment of her inception. On accompanying panel text, she explains that the subsequent journey through Being Legendary will tell the acimowin (story that carries history and knowledge) of her people. Monkman’s works from this section are presented along with the St. Robert meteorite from the ROM collection.    

As Miss Chief continues to traverse time and space, she ushers visitors into the next segment of the exhibition, featuring works depicting fossils from the prehistoric era. Playfully positioned on and around the fossils are “mîmîkwîsiwak” (the Little People) – miniature sacred ancestors adorned in rainbow jumpsuits. Miss Chief’s accompanying narration describes the mîmîkwîsiwak as living in harmony with dinosaurs and treasuring their remains. In each of these works, Monkman re-imagines an actual fossil from the ROM collection, including a horned dinosaur skull, a mastodon’s upper arm bone and a mammoth tooth – all three of which are presented in display cases beside the paintings. 

As Being Legendary moves along the historical timeline, Monkman boldly addresses the violent impact of colonization on Turtle Island through the eyes of Miss Chief. The works in this section solemnly remember the horrific realities of residential schools, and seven generations of forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes by European settlers. In a large-scale work culminating the section, Monkman depicts the Indigenous children of Battleford Industrial School in Saskatchewan being comforted by Miss Chief as they are forced to witness the unjust hanging of eight Indigenous men in 1885. Displayed adjacent to this work, as a symbolic memorial, are eight pairs of moccasins from the ROM collection, made by Cree and Assiniboine artists over a century ago.       

In the final room of the exhibition, Monkman closes Being Legendary with visions of a brighter future, personified by 12 large-scale portraits. Each depicts a future ancestor of Indigenous descent currently doing monumental work in their community, including activists, professors, filmmakers and water walkers. 

Being Legendary is on view until March 2023 at the ROM.

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