Arts, General, Places

Stories of Our History

Entrance to the University of Toronto Art Centre (UTAC). The window peers in to the inside where the "Shame and Prejudice" title is displayed on the wall.

“Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience” opened at the University of Toronto Art Centre last week.

There were a lot of events going on last week as part of Indigenous Education Week (IEW). While not officially a part of the Student Life/First Nations House week of co-sponsored events, the new Kent Monkman exhibit at the University of Toronto Art Centre (UTAC) also opened last week. A project created to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary, the show was a very powerful addition to supplement the themes and discussions that were had as part of IEW 2017.

“History is written by the victors.”

History can be a very complicated thing. And the way our histories are passed on from one generation to the next can itself complicate things further. The exhibit, entitled Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, is a history lesson of sorts. Narrating “a story of Canada through the lens of First Nations’ resilience,” the exhibit is a mix of tragedy and camp, humour and criticism.

"Two of the paintings displayed within the section on urban life."

Two of the paintings displayed within the section on urban life.

Often times I think art is one of the best ways to make really pointed commentary. It’s great to learn about something in an intellectual manner, but all humans are plagued with bias and certain messages are telegraphed more effectively when it speaks directly to your emotional core. Art that is humorous is even better. People are a little more vulnerable when they’re laughing at something. Mix art and humour with some uncomfortable truths and suddenly the message of rage or frustration is something that affects you personally. Wow, I’m actually not sure how this [piece of art] makes me feel. Why did I laugh at that?—that was inappropriate. Am I laughing because I’m actually a little more prejudiced than I thought I was?

While the Shame and Prejudice exhibit isn’t exactly “comedic” the fantastical juxtapositions and surrealist nature of some of the paintings created a somewhat absurdist tone. To see some of the joys and celebrations of indigenous culture represented along with the horrors and reality of oppression of that culture was thought-provoking but also emotionally moving.

A display of gloves and moccasins in the foreground. In the background is another painting (not one of Monkman's)

Displays from other collections and artists served to be a background or contrast (or opposition!) to some of the Monkman paintings.

The Monkman paintings are of course the centerpiece, but the exhibit also features artifacts and paintings from other collections. Seeing Monkman’s paintings alongside these pieces just puts into further contrast the difference between the canonized or sanitized version of history alongside the more brutal, but also triumphant and resilient, untold side of history.

One of the most painfully heartbreaking sections of the exhibit was the one on the forced displacement of indigenous children from their families.

The narrative that introduces the section on Forcible Transfer of Children is displayed on the wall. At the bottom Miss Chief writes: "This is the one I cannot talk about. The pain is too deep. We were never the same."

Forcible Transfer of Children: Miss Chief, Kent Monkman’s alter ego and the narrator that leads us through the story of the exhibit, is often a bit cheeky and defiant in her remarks for the other sections of history. But not here. “The pain is too deep. We were never the same.”

A woman stands in front of the painting "The Scream".

Entitled The Scream, I had a hard time taking my eyes off of this. You can see a close-up of the painting that’s posted on the artist’s site, but it really is something you have to see in person to really experience.

There’s a lot to take in of Kent Monkman’s paintings. Most of them are quite large and there’s a lot of action going on and a lot of intellectual and emotional layers to dissect. It felt overwhelming at times. I had to be pried away for an appointment during this first visit to UTAC, but I’ll definitely be back to take in more of this exhibit and hopefully mull over some more of the layers I didn’t get to explore the first time.


Shame and Prejudice runs at UTAC (the University College part of the Art Museum) until March 4. The gallery is open 12-5pm Tuesday through Saturday and until 8pm on Wednesdays.