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The Met acquires Kent Monkman's grand diptych Mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People)

The Cree artist says the work, on view in the museum's Great Hall, reflects on the “colonial version of history” in museum collections

Kent Monkman, Welcoming the Newcomers (2019) Courtesy of the artist

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has acquired Kent Monkman’s monumental diptych Mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) from 2019. Consisting of the paintings Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People, the diptych has  been on view in the museum’s Great Hall since December and reflects on “the one-sided colonial version of history” that “dominates the narrative of so many museums”, the Cree artist said when they were  unveiled. 

The paintings appropriate seminal European and American works like Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), Thomas Crawford’s Mexican Girl Dying (carved in 1848) and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) to reimagine stories of Western conquest and the 19th-century characterisation of Indigenous communities as a vanishing race.

Monkman’s alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle—a supernatural, gender-fluid figure central to the artist’s oeuvre—is the protagonist of the paintings. She alludes to Indigenous traditions embracing non-binary sexuality and is seen draped in red silk and wearing Christian Louboutin stilettos. In one work, she extends a hand to an enslaved African emerging from the waters, and in the other triumphantly leads a boat of Indigenous people to safety from white soldiers in a torrential storm.

The Met’s director, Max Hollein, says the works “convey Monkman’s reverence for art history’s traditional canon even as he critiques it by calling necessary, incisive attention to its gaping omissions”. He adds that the acquisition comes as the museum works to diversify its collection and “recommits itself to attending more rigorously to underrepresented voices”.

Kent Monkman, Resurgence of the People (2019) Courtesy of the artist

The diptych is the first installment in the Met’s initiative to present contemporary commissions in the Great Hall. It will remain on view until 16 November and was  acquired with support from the Sobey Foundation and the Charities Aid Foundation of Canada. 

The Ontario-based artist, who is best-known for his provocative paintings, performances and photographs that reflect on and subvert colonial histories and the trauma inflicted on Indigenous communities at the hands of European settlers, drew criticism in May for a painting depicting the “sexual assault” of the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau. 

The work Hanky Panky (2020) shows a council of Indigenous women, with Miss Chief Eagle Testickle at the centre while Trudeau, who is shown nude from the waist down and on all fours, prepares for “not a punishment but a consensual act that Miss Chief willingly delivers” with a large red hand, the artist wrote in a statement. A Canadian Mountie police officer can be seen similarly exposed on the floor.

Some viewers argued that the painting valourised violence rather than critiqued it, and images of the work were removed from several Canadian publications that covered the news, leading some viewers to call into question whether Monkman was unfairly censored. Monkman said  the piece was done in good humour but ultimately failed in its message, and issued an apology.