Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience currently on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery presents endless avenues for exploration and learning.
The section of the exhibit called Starvation features this painting Iron Horse created by Kent Monkman in 2015. Iron horse is a term said to have been coined by the indigenous people of North America in the early 1800s when they first saw a steam locomotive.
Monkman’s inspiration for his Iron Horse came from a 1773 painting by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo called The Procession of the Trojan Horse Into Troy.
Tiepolo’s painting illustrates a story from Homer’s Illiad about a battle between the Greeks and Trojans over the kidnapped Helen Queen of Sparta. The Greeks left the Trojans a gift of a huge wooden horse outside the walls of their city. The Trojans thought it was a victory present and hauled it into Troy. Later that night Greek soldiers who were inside the horse came out and opened the city gates to let in the other Greek troops hiding nearby. The Greeks won the war.
Because of The Illiad story, a Trojan horse has come to mean something that looks good but has a much darker purpose or impact. And a Trojan horse is exactly what the railroad was for the First Nations of Canada.
The Indigenous people were told the railroad would be a good thing bringing riches and progress but instead, it brought disaster as settlers shooting buffalo from the train literally decimated the herds on the prairies which had served as a key food source for First Nations.
I read that in order to force Indigenous people in Saskatchewan and Alberta to leave their land along the rail line and move to reservations the Canadian government instituted a plan of famine and starvation. Treaty 6 signed by the government with the Assiniboine, Plains, and Wood Cree people guaranteed food in times of famine but instead, the government used food as a way to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border in order to facilitate the building of the railroad.
Sir John A. Macdonald, acting as both prime minister and minister of Indian affairs during the famine, even bragged in Parliament that he was keeping the indigenous population on the verge of starvation when he was criticized for using too much money to build the railroad.
There’s a rifle from the 1800s on display in the Starvation Exhibit. I read an article that said this model was one of many used to decimate the buffalo population on the prairies within ten years.
The exhibit also includes a bison painting by German artist Albert Bierstadt.
A closer investigation of Bierstadt’s paintings of bison in the North American west allows viewers to see how Kent Monkman was imitating Bierstadt’s style covering most of the canvas with a grand landscape and including small figures only at the bottom of the painting.
In a lecture at Queens University, Kent Monkman said when he first saw Bierstadt’s paintings he thought they were insane. “You had these monumental paintings with these romantic vistas and you could see the presence of God basically shining out of the heavens, they felt kind of biblical in a sense. And you can see the players, Indigenous people, minuscule keepers of nature, just bit players in this large scheme of creation. So, I decided to really start putting my energy towards imitating these paintings because I thought, okay, this is a new challenge. This is really hard…..”
And that is just the very tip of the iceberg for everything you can see and learn and discover in just one section of the Kent Monkman exhibit. Luckily Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience is on at the Winnipeg Art Gallery till February because you will want to keep coming back for more visits as you explore this rich and brilliant collection of art that offers a very different view of Canadian history.