From May 6 to October 4, 2009, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
presents the latest masterwork of Toronto artist Kent Monkman, Dance to the Berdashe. This video installation, composed of five large projections, offers a contemporary re-interpretation of a traditional Aboriginal ritual featuring the Berdashe, that special male figure whose gender-bending behaviour and very existence astonished and appalled many explorers of the American West.
Dance to the Berdashe was inspired by a canvas of the same title by the American painter George Catlin (1796-1872) depicting a dance common among the Sauk and Fox nations, of warriors dancing around a Berdashe, visibly joyful and excited. In his memoirs, published in 1844, From Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians, Catlin speaks of this ritual unsympathetically: One of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs that I have ever met in the Indian country... and where I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.3
Throughout his oeuvre, in paintings, photographs, performances and video installations, Monkman delights in redefining, with more than a touch of humour, the roles historically assigned to Aboriginal people, and in recalling their homosexual practices reported in the accounts of travellers but concealed in the iconography of the noble savage. As he says, We are constantly redefining ourselves as Native people in a fast-changing world. We cannot escape history, but we can question the subjectivity of those who write it. Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is the fictional alter ego Monkman has created for himself to thumb his nose at History.
The Monkmanian version of this scene, displayed on five screens in the shape of buffalo hides, shows Miss Chief Eagle Testickle dancing the role of the Berdashe. The choreography, created by Canadian Cree actor, choreographer and dancer Michael Greyeyes, is based on both the traditional powwow and contemporary dance. The music, written by Toronto composer Phil Strong, is a free syncopated version of Stravinskys Rite of Spring, a modern masterpiece also inspired by ancient tribal rituals.
The critic Barry Ace has written, It is interesting to note that one of Catlins least regarded and perhaps more controversial image[s] would become one of [the] more meaningful works, despite being trapped for more than a century in monolithic stasis. Monkman has clearly released the spirit and intent of the dance, giving it new life.
Painter, filmmaker and performance artist Kent Monkman (born in Saint Marys, Ontario, in 1965) lives and works à Toronto. He is represented by Bailey Fine Arts in Toronto and Stephen Friedman Gallery in London. The artist and his artwork have been selected for inclusion in the 2010 Biennale of Sydney festival of contemporary art. His works are included in the current Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World. The National Gallery of Canada recently acquired Kent Monkmans video installation, Boudoir de Berdashe (2008).
Regular visitors to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts are familiar with Monkmans work. His large canvas Trappers of Men an extravagantly distorted copy of a painting by Albert Bierstadt (Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868) which we acquired in 2006 is already one of the most popular works in the Museums collection of contemporary art. Last year, the Museum acquired and exhibited his series of photographs entitled Emergence of a Legend, which shows the artist impersonating various historical incarnations of Indian women.
Stéphane Aquin, curator of Contemporary Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is in charge of the presentation of Dance to the Berdasche.