Kent Monkman’s The Rise and Fall of Civilization references the near extinction of the American bison in the 1800s when unsustainable hunting practices, used primarily by white settlers, reduced the number of bison from over 30 million to just a few hundred by the 1880s. During this time, bison or buffalo were hunted for their durable hides and their bones were used for fertilizer and in the manufacture of bone china. The buffalo meat was left to rot, decimating a food source that had sustained Indigenous peoples for generations.
Informed by an early fascination with museum dioramas at the Manitoba Museum, Kent Monkman has re-created a buffalo jump, illustrating a traditional buffalo hunting method used by Indigenous people. Here, the artist’s gender bending alter ego, the iconic Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, is driving the buffalo to the edge of the cliff, as her ancestors would have for thousands of years, to ultimately harvest and use every part of the animal. The smashed ceramics at the base of the cliff reference the build-up of bones often found at buffalo jumps, as well as the history of Indigenous ceramics found at sites across North America. The plunging buffalo morph from a taxidermy form into an abstracted form reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s reoccurring bull figure, a reference to the dominance of Eurocentrism and modern art’s widespread aesthetic appropriation of Indigenous visual culture. The buffalo then morph into ancient rock drawings, functioning as a metaphor for the inevitable flow of history.
Kent Monkman is a Canadian artist of Cree ancestry who is well known for his provocative reinterpretations of romantic North American landscapes. Themes of colonization, sexuality, loss and resilience - the complexities of historic and contemporary Indigenous experience - are explored in a variety of mediums, including painting, film/video, performance and installation. His glamorous gender-fluid alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle appears in much of his work as a time travelling, shape shifting and supernatural being who reverses the colonial gaze, upending received notions of history and Indigenous people. Kent Monkman’s work has been exhibited internationally and is widely represented in the collections of major museums in Canada and the USA.