Indigenous American Photography
Cree artist Kent Monkman works with gender, history, and Indigenous representation on multiple levels, and he often manipulates photographs to look old and timeless. Here is one from his 2007 series The Emergence of a Legend, which are digital prints on metallic paper, 6 x 4" each.
In this one we see Cindy Silverscreen, a persona of Miss Chief Eagle Testicle (a play on mischief egotistical), who is one of Monkman’s alter egos, standing as a movie director with bullhorn and camera in front of a backdrop of Monument Valley. Monkman says this references the Hollywood Western, specifically The Searchers, “one of the most racist Westerns ever made.” It’s also a nod to Cindy Sherman, the influential photographer who took hyperreal selfies and presented them as film stills in the 1970s. Monkman: “The studio portraits, shot, printed, and framed to emulate antique daguerreotypes, feature my alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testicle in various performance guises. The photos trace the history of Aboriginal performance culture — more specifically ‘Indians’ performing for a European audience.”
The history of intercultural performance is explored by Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco in The Couple In The Cage. It is a history of native performance and exploitation that begins with Columbus sending back slaves, and runs all the way through to Pocahontas selling tobacco in England, to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows touring Europe and beyond, to Edward Curtis exhibiting photographs of sacred ceremonies and magic power objects. I believe what Monkman is doing is that “Aikido move” of using the power of the opponent against them. He taps into the authority of aged and sepia-toned daguerreotypes to tell another story.
That he uses a drag queen alter ego also connects him to a long line of trickster artists. Art historian Kate Morris points out that Monkman’s Miss Chief is a nod to the Dada trickster Marcel Duchamp, who transformed himself into Rrose Selavy in 1921. Apparently, Duchamp created his alter ego in an attempt to “get away from himself.” Morris: “In Europe during the inter-war period, Duchamp and his Dada collaborators decided that the most radical shift in identity that a Catholic man could make was to become a Jewish woman.”
The genius in Monkman is that, by inserting queer and two-spirit native bodies into the historical photographs that were used to erase them, he kills two birds with one stone: he’s reasserting native presence with its inherently decolonial gender blending behaviors (often overlooked), and at the same time he’s highlighting how history (and its photographic record) is fake — or at least is a blend of fact and fantasy.