Kent Monkman

Interview by
Cesar Padilla


A few months ago, during a trip to Montreal, I went to the Museum of Fine Arts where I came across a series of epic paintings of North American landscapes full of strapping half-naked Indians and Western-looking hunters, like homoerotic fantasies of post-colonial role reversals. The artist, Kent Monkman, had also installed a multi-screen video installation featuring a performance by his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle — a creature resembling something of a peyote-enhanced Vegas vision of Pocahontas. I watched the video five or six times and had to meet Kent Monkman. When I tracked him down in Toronto (he’s the son of a Cree father and an Irish-English mother and originally from Winnipeg) I found him to be tall, handsome, charming and quite funny. After a few glasses of wine I convinced him to transform himself into Miss Chief Eagle Testickle again. He reluctantly agreed (he usually only does it for performances).

Cesar: Thanks for putting on the full attire for me. You’re going to look gorgeous! I can’t wait for the final result. I feel you can’t really discuss your work without starting with your alter ego. What was the genesis of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle?
Kent:At first, Miss Chief was simply a character on canvas. That’s where she got her look. And I always just thought she would only exist in painting. I wasn’t really interested in doing drag. But then it just evolved and I realized it had to happen.
So when was Miss Chief’s first public appearance?
She was first brought to life in 2004, at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario, which is called the spiritual home of the Canadian Group of Seven, a group of all-male, early 20th-century landscape painters. I was doing a residency there and Miss Chief was brought to life as a reaction to a couple of things that were happening at the museum. The control of the museum had just gone back from being publicly run to the founders, the McMichaels. They didn’t approve of the progressive direction in which the institution was going and they put a freeze on all programming that strayed from their conservative mandate for the museum’s indigenous art collection. So out of protest I created this performance piece where Miss Chief had two European males posing as models while she recited from the diaries of George Catlin, the painter who specialized in portraits of Native Americans. The two guys were dressed in European costumes and Miss Chief would force these innocent naked white men to become her figure models, seducing them with whiskey, and then dressing them up as more ‘authentic’ examples of the European male. I called the piece (and film) The Group of Seven Inches.
Had you ever worn drag before that?
Just a few times, but never as Miss Chief. I never thought drag would evolve as a part of my art practice. But whenever I did drag, people always called me Cher.
Can I call you Cher?
(Laughs) Shit, now I fucked up my eyebrows. I’m going to have to redo them.
What do you mean?
Well, I want them to be perfect. I cover the eyebrows with wax but it didn’t dry right. It smoothes down the hair so I can put a foundation on to mask my manbrows. I then redraw my eyebrows on top of the foundation and this eyebrow pencil is completely falling part. I haven’t done this by myself in, like, five years. Usually my makeup artist makes Miss Chief become real.
Is there a connection to Cher?
Well, when I created Miss Chief, I was definitely channeling Cher’s Half-Breed era.
Have you always had a Cher fascination?
I remember back when my two older brothers and I would play hockey. By that time my parents already had hockey-parent burnout. They didn’t come to my games or practices. So one year, for my tenth birthday, I wanted a long black wig, like Cher’s. My parents used to put my present at the end of the bed, so that I would wake up, see the present and be super happy. That year, I remember holding the present and feeling how silky it felt through the tissue. I was so excited. I tore the tissue open and it turned out to be a hockey jersey. I was so bummed out. It would be a few more years before I got my Cher wig.
It’s amazing.
Well, I think I just wanted really long, flowing hair, like the Indians in the movies. I don’t think I specifically asked for a Cher wig. I just really wanted long, flowing hair.
And where did the makeup come from?
It was also modeled after Cher. I showed my makeup artist pictures of her doing Half-Breed and said, ‘Make me look like this.’
Where did Miss Chief get her first outfit?
I collaborated with a designer who created the costume, which I’d designed. The headdress I made myself by hand.
Was mom an influence or did she help with the transformation?
She has never said she doesn’t like it. She is quite fascinated with the adventures of Miss Chief. When she saw ‘Dance of the Berdache’ for the first time, many in my family were in attendance and she said, ‘That was really good! Who did you get to play the lady?’ My whole family busted out laughing and I had to tell her it was me.
Do you shave everything?
I’m a reluctant leg shaver when it comes to drag. I don’t like the feeling of a smooth leg. I like hair. I like hair on men. Once I shaved completely and I couldn’t wait for the hair to grow back on my body. I’m naturally smooth, so I kind of treasure the hair I have on my body and it’s also a lot of work removing body hair. I remember once going through three bottles of Neet or Nair or whatever it is called. I can put on my concealing panty hose to hide my hairy legs, but the problem with panty hose is that I look like a Portuguese grandmother.
And what about those stacked hooker heels?
I get them at one of those strippers’ shoe stores on Young Street in downtown Toronto. It took a lot of practice to perform in those, but I think I just learned on the job.
I think the hooker heels are actually my favorite part of Miss Chief’s look, because they always keep Miss Chief cheap and real at the same time. It’s the one part of the outfit that reminds the viewer that this is the work of a post-modern artist.
I never thought of that, but you are absolutely right. That is the main clue. I wanted her to really feel like she is living in the 19th century. I didn’t want to be too heavy handed with an anachronistic approach to time travel. That is why she has no other modern accoutrements. It is a bit of a mind-fuck.
So how often does Miss Chief make an appearance?
Every year or so. She is reserved for special occasions. I get asked a fair bit to do performances, but I’m picky about when she actually appears. Tonight is special.
I watched your film, Robin’s Hood, where Miss Chief is on horseback riding through Sherwood Forest in rural England, chasing European males with a bow and arrow. So the real Miss Chief is also an excellent archer, just like her canvas persona?
(Laughs) Well, I learned in summer camp when I was a kid, at the Red Rock Mennonite Bible Camp. The camp was near the border of Manitoba and Ontario. I ended up there because my parents probably thought that it was better than the YMCA camp. I think they thought it would be good for my character. I went about five years in a row from age eight to thirteen. I loved it.
Did you get it on at summer camp like in the movie Little Darlings?
I wish! Mennonite boys are so hot. My current boyfriend is a Mennonite and so was my last.
Your work is super homoerotic, but I also find it very revisionist. It’s constantly challenging the viewer to rethink North American aboriginal culture and the history of the West itself.
I think modernism is a willful and deliberate period of amnesia and the histories of aboriginal societies have faired badly in this modern era. I like to think I can help reverse this. A lot of cultures have a problem with gay identity because it exposes relationships with men that already exist but remain unspoken. But I’m especially interested in male-on-male warrior relationships, the ones that came out of European mythology, where for example these European explorers had relationships with each other out on the frontier where there were no women. These historical male relationships are so homo, and they’re all documented. For example, there are these letters of Lewis from the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was the first North American overland expedition in the early 19th century. According to these letters, Lewis was totally in love with Clark and committed suicide when he couldn’t have him.
But you also uncover the so-called dandies that existed in aboriginal societies.
Yes, these dandies are most often the most flamboyant within the tribe, and George Catlin refers to them as ‘men of leisure who spent their days working on their outfits or watching men play sports.’ Catlin is the one who called them ‘dandies’ and he found them represented in every tribe he visited, which was approximately 150 tribes. I find this very fascinating. They apparently were very colorful and respected within the community. Catlin describes how their own people would call these dandies ‘faint hearts’ or ‘old women’. If you read between the lines, you begin to understand that they were the gay men in the tribe and that their sexuality was in question. That’s where Miss Chief Eagle Testickle comes riding in bareback, so the ‘faint hearts’ can have their day.
So has Miss Chief ever gotten it on? Has she ever pulled a train, so to speak?
I’ve never had sex dressed as Miss Chief. I just don’t feel sexy when I am dressed as her. Not at all.

Published on 12 February 2010