"They were painting Indians and their work has had so much weight in museums for its ethnological importance," Monkman says. "I just wanted to look at the subject-ivity behind it. These artists believed that native people were going to become extinct, that this was a dying race that they needed to capture in a time of cultural purity before it became contaminated or diluted.
"I needed to address this image of a native person with the feathers and all the regalia associated with these stereotypes - but I didn't want to play into them. I decided to undermine them through drag and Cher, this non-Native performer doing a kind of gender and cultural crossdressing. I could become this stereotype and comment on it. Because it had this period flavour I could also inhabit these paintings and, from a distance, this character would fit right into the landscape. And not until you got up close and could see the details, like the [high-heel] shoes and so forth, could you see that there was something else going on."
Cleverly plumbing the dynamic depths of colonial contact, the paintings in The Moral Landscape feature sexually charged, violent encounters between native men, including Miss Chief, and white men -- cowboys, soldiers and other archetypes. This time the Indians are on top. "We're constantly evolving as cultures in contact with each other. Sexuality exists in that middle ground where there's conflict and consensual acts."
The figures in the paintings are quite small, dwarfed by the immense landscapes directly inspired by paintings by Paul Kane and George Catlin, artists whom Monkman has spent a great deal of time and energy studying.
The ImagineNative Media Arts Festival (running Wed, Oct 19 to 23) presents the world premiere of two shorts by Monkman (in the Way Out There program at 7pm on Fri, Oct 21). The video Group Of Seven Inches grew out of his painting work and is described as a "titillating taxonomy of the customs and manners of the European male." These poor Europeans are a noble but vanishing race whose traditions are dying out through their contact with the more advanced red man.
In the video that mimics a silent-era film, Miss Chief on horseback discovers two young and nubile whites who she takes back to her studio for a painting session. Monkman uses quotes from Kane and Catlin ("I have a profound feeling for his dignity and individuality") in wry counterpoint to the subsequent debauched scenes of liquor-fuelled sexual exploitation (complete with snowshoe spanking). In the final scene she forces the whites to dress up in traditional European garb for the entertainment and education of the masses, a scathing reference to Catlin's tableaux vivants and other touring displays of indigenous people as curiosities.
While Monkman sharply mocks some very painful historical legacies, he uses bawdiness and camp to lay bare the Christian piety, sexual repression and racist hypocrisy of colonizers. Humour is crucial, says Monkman. "It's really important for presenting a very positive and empowered point of view." Monkman's paintings make clear that behind each colonial artist's claim of scientific objectivity lurks an explosive mix of fear of and lust for the "other."
The video, codirected by Gisèle Gordon, is based on a performance that took place last year at the McMichael gallery in Kleinburg, home to the Group Of Seven collection. "This whole history of art in Canada is really a living document of colonization, of the European contact, their eye on the land, their eye on the first people," says Monkman. "Are we in the paintings? Are we not in the paintings? How are we perceived in the paintings?
"As a painter I need to engage more directly with this art history and respond to it. The Group Of Seven paintings were great because they're so iconic, we're so smothered by them still." Talk about direct engagement -- the spanking scene was shot in Tom Thomson's actual shack, now located at the McMichael. "I wanted to do something active that engaged with the space itself," says Monkman. "The museum has become a time capsule and a very narrow one and clearly from a strong Eurocentric perspective, especially considering that the Aboriginal artists are relegated to this historical, ethnological gallery. I reversed that gaze.
"When people look at it from that perspective they realize how condescending it is to have someone outside your culture decide that at this point in your cultural evolution you must stop and you are going to be frozen in time.
"The challenge was to make these paintings as good as or better than the paintings that have made history.... Mine will have the same authority that the realistic, classical style has." Painting works in 2005 that have the painstaking detail of 19th-century works is an incredibly strong statement. Miss Chief, repressed unconscious or trickster queen, is there with her subjects among sublime mountains and forests, bound up in perverse power games that make explicit all that was left out of the original paintings.
Also screening at ImagineNative is Monkman's Future Nation, a smart and ambitious sci-fi short that Monkman wrote and directed in collaboration with the RepREZentin' media empowerment project for Aboriginal youth run by Big Soul Productions. An apocalyptic outbreak of a disease dubbed Megapox sparks an exodus from the urban centres to the rural areas. So begins a new wave of colonization as the Blood River reservation is invaded by yuppies. In the bitch-eat-bitch Toronto gay scene, cute young naïf Brian falls for sexy drag dominatrix Tonya (aka James) who tops would-be cowboys. Brian escapes the city to live with his homophobic brother and sickly sister - complete with a pox-infected Hudson's Bay Company blanket. But they must return to the city for food when their rations run out, giving Brian the chance to reunite with his belle.
Most ImagineNative screenings take place at Al Green (750 Spadina Ave) and cost $5. Also look for Fa'afafine In Transit by New Zealand director Lisa Taouma (in traditional Samoan society, a fa'afafine is a boy raised as a girl in a family with too many male children) screening at 1:30pm, Thu Oct 20 and The Beat, a music night with Kinnie Starr and guests at 8:30pm on Sat, Oct 22 at El Mocambo (464 Spadina Ave). For a complete list of films, workshops and other events go to Imaginenative.org.