This afternoon I will be giving a group from my church a tour of the Kent Monkman exhibit Shame and Prejudice at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. One of the installations we will spend time looking at is a nativity scene that is part of an area of the exhibit called The Res House. In one of his lectures Kent Monkman explains how in this artwork he has set the birth of Jesus in a house on one of Canada’s First Nations’ reservations. Kent clearly shows the less than ideal condition of the housing. One of the first things you notice is that the Mary, Joseph and Jesus figures all have the same face and it is the face of artist Kent Monkman. Kent explains that he was visiting the Natural History Museum in New York when he realized they had used one male face on all the indigenous mannequins in every single diorama, no matter what First Nation they belonged to, or even whether they were male or female. So Kent thought “well, then I’m just going to put my head on everybody now.”
The baby is lying on a Hudson’s Bay blanket. The arrival of fur trading companies like the Hudson’s Bay in Canada changed the lives of Canada’s indigenous people forever.
There is bottled water in the house- a reference to the fact that there is still a boil water advisory in some Canadian communities and people have to drink bottled water because their water source isn’t clean or safe.
Joseph is wearing a Chicago Black Hawks jersey and it can start a discussion about how professional sports teams have appropriated indigenous names and symbols. Kent has replaced the face of the man on the jersey with his alter ego, trickster character Miss Chief who appears in many of Kent’s pieces in the Shame and Prejudice exhibit.
The Mary figure is holding a rosary in her hand. Instead of Jesus on the cross, there is a beaver. Beavers with praying hands look heavenward on the top frame of the exhibit which features Latin words that mean Love Conquers All.
The placement of this installation is also interesting because just behind it in an adjoining gallery is another nativity scene that is very different from the one Kent has created.
There are so many details in Kent’s nativity scene to notice and discuss. I think the tour I give my church will be the 15th one of the Monkman exhibit I have led and each time I learn something new from the visitors I show Kent’s work. I am excited about what the people from my church may find this afternoon.