I am so excited about the Kent Monkman exhibit Shame and Prejudice coming to the Winnipeg Art Gallery in just a few weeks. Kent Monkman lives in Toronto, has exhibited on three continents, and has an international reputation.
But did you know Kent Monkman grew up in Winnipeg and has many childhood connections with the Winnipeg Art Gallery? He’s always loved to draw and was sketching and painting horses before he was five.
Monkman started studying art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery when he was one of two kids chosen from his school to receive free Saturday morning classes at the WAG. In an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, he says, “I felt such a sense of belonging at the Winnipeg Art Gallery because I spent so much time there as a kid, not just in the art classes, but walking through the galleries.”
In a lecture at Queens University, the artist describes how he felt a certain kind of ownership of the Winnipeg Art Gallery space especially after seeing the work of Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle exhibited there. In an article in the Winnipeg Free Press Monkman talks about how fascinated he was to see an indigenous man who was “a contemporary artist making modern paintings.” He was inspired by Houle’s work.
Kent Monkman was born in St. Mary’s Ontario. His father Everet Monkman was a member of Fisher River First Nation and his mother, a schoolteacher Rilla Unger, was Anglo-Irish. They were both devout evangelical Christians who met through their church connection. An article in the Toronto Life magazine says the Monkman family first lived in Shamattawa in northern Manitoba as Christian missionaries. Kent’s mother found it very difficult. She couldn’t speak Cree and their living accommodations were rustic.
When Kent was in grade one his family moved to Winnipeg where his Dad did church work, drove a taxi, was a social worker and a bush pilot. He died in a plane crash when Kent was 21. His great grandmother Caroline Everett, who spoke only Cree, lived with his family in Winnipeg till he was ten so he had a strong connection with his indigenous family history as a young child. His grandmother Elizabeth Monkman went to a residential school in Brandon, Manitoba but only talked about the suffering she had experienced there on her deathbed.
Kent’s family lived in River Heights where he went to Kelvin High School with kids from some of Winnipeg’s richest families. He was a popular student.
In an article in the Montreal Gazette Kent says some of his most vivid memories growing up in Winnipeg were visits he made to the Manitoba Museum. The way indigenous life was portrayed in the life-size dioramas was so very different from what he saw on the Main Street strip of Winnipeg where poverty and suffering and the effects of dislocation were so clearly evident. At the museum, he saw proud indigenous people before the arrival of colonists and on the streets of Winnipeg he saw indigenous people tumbling out of bars. “I had to reconcile the idealized, pre-contact, frozen-in-time image in the museum with this reality of what the colonial project did. I remember kids looking at me and saying, ‘What happened to your people? What’s going on?’ I didn’t know how to answer them.”
During our 2017/2018 exhibit Insurgence/Resurgence at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, we had one of Kent Monkman’s works on display and it was a huge hit especially with the Winnipeg teenagers I took on tours. I know they will be inspired by his upcoming exhibit Shame and Prejudice.
One thing I want to be sure the teenagers on my tours know is that Kent Monkman is from their home city and that Winnipeg, and in particular the Winnipeg Art Gallery, played a role in shaping his art and launching him on his path to phenomenal success in the art world. I hope Kent Monkman’s work at the Winnipeg Art Gallery inspires a whole new generation of Winnipeg young people the way Robert Houle’s work inspired Kent when he was a teenager.