It’s been a few years since Cree artist Kent Monkman started the long, complicated process of crafting his roughly 3.5 metre by 7 metre acrylic-on-canvas painting Miss Chief’s Wet Dream.
Now finished and fresh from an exhibit tour in France, the artwork has found a home on a wall just big enough to hold it at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS) in downtown Halifax.
“It’s very fitting — the arrival of the Europeans [was on] the East Coast,” said Monkman.
“So I think it really makes sense on a number of different levels. It’s kind of great that it’s found a home there.”
Miss Chief’s Wet Dream is Monkman’s largest painting yet. It depicts two sea-tossed vessels about to collide.
One, a tattered raft rigged with a sail, is occupied by pale characters from European history. Queen Victoria, Jesus Christ, and Marie Antoinette sit with a Viking, a centaur, and a figure resembling Napoleon but with the head of a bull.
The other vessel is a canoe filled with richly coloured contemporary and ancient Indigenous characters. A young man leans over the water, offering a smoking pipe to the Europeans while a grimacing Mohawk warrior holds him back. A figure wearing a Haida mask beats a hand drum. A young girl is clutched by her mother.
In the centre of the canoe, Miss Chief, Monkman’s alter ego and subject in many of his pieces, sleeps peacefully with an erection.
Monkman said his inspiration for the piece was the Two Row Wampum of 1613, a treaty agreement between the Haudenosaunee people and Dutch settlers.
A wampum belt, the symbolic representation of that treaty, contained two rows of purple wampum beads on a white background. The two rows represent equal parties, each travelling in their own canoe, who will not interrupt each other’s paths.
“I just loved that image and I thought that that would make for an incredible … history painting and so that’s really where the idea came from,” said Monkman.
“This idea of turbulence and dreaming, these two European cultures and Indigenous cultures kind of colliding. Those were some of the overarching themes that I was exploring.”
The intention was to provoke thought and conversation about what European and Indigenous treaties were originally intended to mean, Monkman said, but more importantly where they stand now.
“I wanted people to think about those original treaties and how they have not been honoured. How the Canadian government continues to move away from these agreements, and to move away from their obligations and their promises,” he said.
Shame and Prejudice
A touring exhibit of some of Monkman’s paintings, sculptures and installations, called Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, opened at the AGNS in October and will be on display until mid-December.
Miss Chief’s Wet Dream will be showing at the gallery until Nov. 11, and then placed in storage until it’s mounted permanently in May 2019.
“The opportunity to involve an image like this that tells a historic story, and one that allows … this kind of conversation to happen, is so important,” said Sarah Fillmore, chief curator at the AGNS.