The Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled two monumental new paintings by Cree artist Kent Monkman in the Museum’s main entrance hall. The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) inaugurated a new series of contemporary commissions in the Museum’s Great Hall. In his work, Monkman reappropriates images, motifs, and techniques from art history to express Indigenous people’s experiences and histories, subverting the predominate narratives of Euro-American culture, while also addressing present-day issues.
Featuring numerous references to works in The Met collection, the two paintings that comprise mistikôsiwak: Wooden Boat People (Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People)evoke the relationship between people native to Turtle Island—the name many Indigenous people use for North America—and newcomers to their lands. The commission’s primary title derives from a Cree word meaning “wooden boat people” that originally applied to French settlers but is used here to refer to all Europeans who colonized the “New World.” Prominent in each of the related compositions is the larger-than-life figure of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s shape-shifting, time-traveling alter ego, who pays tribute to the tradition in Indigenous cultures of the “Two Spirit,” a third gender and non-binary sexuality. Miss Chief, whose name plays on the words mischief and egotistical, also refers to the Cree trickster figure, who challenges conventional beliefs and wisdom in traditional stories.
“The Met’s new series of commissions presents contemporary art in unexpected places around the Museum, inviting dialogue within the rich context of The Met’s architecture and galleries,” said Max Hollein, Director of the Museum. “The visually striking and thought-provoking paintings that Monkman has created join a legacy of works made by artists drawing inspiration from the collection—in this case, early American art, including Emanuel Leutze’s iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851)—and that speak to present-day ideas and events. It’s an important moment to witness the voicing of previously underrepresented perspectives in such a prominent and symbolic location at The Met. These works represent a painterly reevaluation of history and a contemporary perspective on history painting.”
Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met, added, “Cribbing from iconic images by European and American artists—Peter Paul Rubens, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Eugène Delacroix, and Thomas Crawford, among them—Monkman takes on the hallowed artistic conventions of depicting history and mythology, inserting intertwined themes of arrival, migration, displacement, and Indigenous disenfranchisement. Presented in the inner sanctum of the Museum’s entrance hall, these radical paintings act as a different kind of portal, welcoming and signaling new interpretations of the Museum’s encyclopedic collections.”
Kent Monkman commented, “In creating these paintings I was inspired, not only by the historic artworks in The Met collection but also by the history of Manhattan itself. For thousands of years, these lands have been a meeting center for trade and diplomacy for many Indigenous nations, including the Lenape, until they were displaced by European settlers. These paintings reference Manhattan’s important role as a portal for immigration into North America and also the impact our rising sea levels will have on the millions who could be displaced in the not-too-distant future.”
The Museum’s Beaux-Arts Great Hall, designed by the architect and founding Museum Trustee Richard Morris Hunt, opened to the public in December 1902. The grand and ceremonial welcoming space has often been a site for art from across time and cultures. Today, Kent Monkman’s mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) joins a Middle Kingdom statue of an Egyptian pharaoh—possibly King Amenemhat II (ca. 1919–1878 B.C.)—and a Hellenistic period sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena (ca. 170 B.C.)—both on long-term loan to the Museum. Previous installations have included work by Piotr Uklański (2015), Andy Warhol (2012), and John Baldessari (2010) as part of related exhibitions.
Kent Monkman, born in Canada in 1965, is a Cree artist who is widely known for his provocative interventions into Western European and American art history. He explores themes of colonization, sexuality, loss, and resilience—the complexities of historic and contemporary Indigenous experiences—across a variety of mediums, including painting, film/video, performance, and installation. Monkman’s gender-fluid alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle often appears in his work as a time-traveling, shape-shifting, supernatural being who reverses the colonial gaze to challenge received notions of history and Indigenous peoples. With Miss Chief at center stage, Monkman has created site-specific performances at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Compton Verney, and the Denver Art Museum.
The installation is part of a new series of contemporary commissions at The Met in which the Museum invites artists to create new works of art to establish a dialogue between the artist’s practice, The Met collection, the physical Museum, and The Met’s audiences.
The Great Hall Commission: Kent Monkman, mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) will be on view through April 9, 2020. It is featured on The Met website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via the hashtag #MetKentMonkman and #MetGreatHall.