Renowned Cree artist Kent Monkman has come under fire for his new painting that shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau partially nude, on all fours, preparing for what Monkman called “a consensual act” while Indigenous women surrounding him laugh.
The painting, titled Hanky Panky, has been condemned by many who believe it portrays sexual violence and disrespects First Nations traditions. But it is also being praised by some, including Ojibway Senator Murray Sinclair.
Monkman posted the work on Facebook on Saturday and said the piece was meant to highlight problems with “the Canadian (in)justice system” and the victimization of Indigenous women, who experience violence and sexual assault at rates higher than other women in Canada. But it provoked a backlash.
“It just really made me feel sick, and the way that the likeliness of Trudeau was being held down and forced into it,” said Jaye Simpson, an Oji-Cree Saulteaux queer artist and writer in Vancouver. “It reminded me of some of my own situations and it just made me sick.”
Simpson took a closer look at the image and said it appeared sexual violence was being depicted as restitution. In a post on social media, Monkman described the circle of women in his piece as traditional law keepers, the okihcitâwiskwêwak in Cree.
Simpson sees it as Cree women’s protocols, or traditional roles, being disrespected.
The painting also shows a Mountie lying on the ground with his pants down and former prime ministers in the crowd, watching. CBC News has cropped the original painting into separate images to avoid showing the nudity.
Monkman is known for creating highly sexualized, provocative work that’s been displayed around the world, including at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Cree artist, who is from the Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba and now lives in Toronto, depicts colonization, sexuality and loss through his gender-fluid alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.
Simpson noted the prominent central imaging of the red hand, which to many in the Indigenous community is a symbol meant to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
While Simpson believes the hand is a sex toy that has appeared in Monkman’s previous work, others see it as an insult to MMIWG.
‘He’s taken the symbol and degraded it’
“He’s taken the symbol and he’s degraded it,” said Danielle Ewenin, an Indigenous activist from Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan whose sister Eleanor was found dead, frozen, outside Calgary in 1982 at age 23. The case remains unsolved, and Ewenin, who believes police mishandled it, continues to fight to keep it alive.
Ewenin has written a letter with her concerns about the piece to about 20 family members who have a missing or murdered Indigenous relative.
Sinclair, an Independent Manitoba senator, praised the work in a Facebook post, saying Monkman has produced “another monumental testament to the treatment of Indigenous women and the public’s lack of caring. How? By reversing the roles of victim and victimizer.”
“He has managed to get people worked up over the obscenity of the content, in startling contrast to the intellectual calmness with which people look upon how Indigenous women were treated. I wish people were as shocked and angered at that visual as they are at Monkman’s portrayal of it. He’s talented. He’s brilliant. He cares. Do you?”
Artist says he deeply regrets any harm caused
Monkman addressed the criticism in another Facebook post Monday.
“I have been listening and learning from your feedback. I deeply regret any harm that was caused by the work. I acknowledge that the elements I had included to indicate consent are not prominent enough, and I see now how the painting could appear,” he said.
“I also regret referring to the okihcitâwiskwêwak in a context that could be interpreted in a disrespectful way. I will remove any further reference to them in writing for the painting.”
Eugene Fernandes, a recent graduate of UBC Okanagan, going into marketing, said while he was initially intrigued and then disturbed by the painting, he didn’t think Monkman should have to apologize for it.
“I think there’s a rush to push people to apologize for something that they’ve said which may be offensive or derogatory or harmful — which, there is a place for that,” Fernandes said. “But if you are not able to express what you think even in the form of experimentation or an art then you’re not able to really figure out what the problems are and how we should be facing them as a society.”
Monkman was not made available for an interview Wednesday. The Prime Minister’s Office said it had no comment on Monkman’s painting.