Hertha D. Sweet Wong: The History of Canada, as told by Miss Chief Eagle Testickle

Picturing Identity by Hertha D. Sweet WongToday we welcome a guest post from Hertha D. Sweet Wong, author of Picturing Identity:  Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text, just published by UNC Press.

In Picturing Identity, Hertha D. Sweet Wong examines the intersection of writing and visual art in the autobiographical work of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American writers and artists who employ a mix of written and visual forms of self-narration. Combining approaches from autobiography studies and visual studies, Wong argues that, in grappling with the breakdown of stable definitions of identity and unmediated representation, these writers-artists experiment with hybrid autobiography in image and text to break free of inherited visual-verbal regimes and revise painful histories. These works provide an interart focus for examining the possibilities of self-representation and self-narration, the boundaries of life writing, and the relationship between image and text.

Picturing Identity is available now in both print and ebook editions.


The History of Canada, as told by Miss Chief Eagle Testickle

As part of the ongoing project of decolonization, indigenous artists and writers take on the role of autobiographers, ethnographers, historians, activists, and visionaries, often in the form of visual autobiography. Their storytelling crosses fields of study (art practice, history, anthropology, and literature), media (text, photographs, drawings, paintings, and maps), as well as geographies and cultures. Collectively they bear witness to transgenerational trauma, challenge official settler-colonial myths, share tribal stories and epistemologies as well as personal narratives, and insist on indigenous presence, witness, and continuity.

The work of First Nations Kent Monkman, of Cree and Irish descent and a member of the Fish River band of Northern Manitoba, addresses the history of Western art in order to create an indigenous response to the settler-colonial reality and the centuries of transgenerational trauma it has generated. In Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience (2017), an installation created for the 150th Anniversary of the Canadian confederacy, Monkman uses the conventions of European landscape and history painting to challenge official Canadian myths and to retell history, insisting on indigenous presence and witness. He exposes and critiques explorer-settler-colonial relations, and emphasizes indigenous endurance. Monkman offers a wryly humorous, but deadly serious counter narrative to European domination. Influenced by the Hudson River School of painters, and for this show, the power of the painting, Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Málaga (1887-1888) by Spanish painter Antonio Gisbert, Monkman explains: “It felt as though Gisbert had sent a message into the future, a passionate defense of freedom and a critique of authoritarianism”. Monkman aimed for a similarly powerful effect in Shame and Prejudice.

Because Gisbert’s visual realism “reached across a century to pull [Monkman] into the emotional core of a lived experience with such intensity”, Monkman asked: “Where were the paintings from the nineteenth century that recounted, with passion and empathy, the dispossession, starvation, incarceration and genocide of Indigenous people here on Turtle Island?” Deploying his autobiographical persona, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, “a gender-bending time-traveller” and the embodiment of the “playful trickster spirit,” Monkman seeks “to authorize Indigenous experience in the canon of art history”. Monkman is committed to presenting a visual narrative of Canada from an indigenous perspective, one that focuses on “Indigenous resilience in the face of genocide”. The installation is accompanied by the book–Shame and Prejudice: Excerpts from the Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. While Monkman deals with several themes in this imaginative memoir–the fur trade in New France, indigenous-white power relations, introduction of the railroad and killing of the buffalo, forcible removal of children to residential boarding schools, incarceration, epidemics, the rez, urban indigenous life, his enduring theme is, despite the long history of atrocities, the resilience of indigenous people.

Accompanying the book are cultural objects and paintings created in the style of the Western traditions of historical narrative and landscape paintings, especially those from nineteenth-century North America. “I wanted to work within the conventions,” explains Monkman, “to shock or surprise people”. Viewers approach what appears to be a familiar genre of painting only to be confounded by Monkman’s indigenous tweaking of it. To illustrate, I will focus on only one of the paintings, “The Scream” (84” x 126”, acrylic on canvas, 2017), that is the center of Shame and Prejudice. This painting depicts “Mounties, nuns and priests violently rounding up Indigenous children to send them to residential schools”. This, for Monkman, is the worst of settler-colonial murderous practices. His grandmother was among those taken forcibly from their families and sent to residential schools. He knows the shame and silence and pain of his grandmother’s experience and extrapolates that to imagine the many individuals and families who suffered and who, like him, have inherited that legacy of trauma. Monkman engages with Western forms in order to explode them with alternative content and perspective. This is a form of mimicry (and parody) that offers ironic critique. “The menace of mimicry,” explains Homi Bhabha, is its “double vision, which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority”. Finally, Monkman’s artistic interventions not only repeat, they refract and redirect the European gaze.


Hertha D. Sweet Wong is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.  You can read her previous UNC Press Blog post here.