Monkman’s Four Continents Together at KWAG

Last fall, the Kindred Credit Union Centre of Peace Advancement hosted an artist panel on art and activism. Speaking about the contemporary art scene, local playwright and activist Johnny Wideman lamented that so much art is like “junk food.”

“It is sort of fun and exciting but our brains need more substance to chew on,” he explained. With Wideman’s analysis echoing in my mind, I looked upon the The Four Continents by Kent Monkman at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. Monkman’s skilled revival of pre-modern representational painting and dizzying conceptual depth, may be the cultural sustenance we seem to be craving.

The Four Continents is a contemporary reinterpretation of Allegory of the Planets and Continents by the 18th century Venetian old master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. At his artist talk at KWAG on Jan. 13, Monkman explained how historic paintings can reveal much about the narrative believed by European and settler cultures and how, through reproduction, these stories can be told anew.

Each panel by Monkman separately tackles four different continents. Excitingly, this is the first time that all four appear together, allowing for a clearer reading of Monkman’s social and political perspective. For one, it is more clear that Monkman is framing his reinterpretation of Tiepolo’s masterpiece from a Cree worldview by aligning each of the four paintings with the four directions. Behind each panel the four walls have been painted either red, white, black or red to demonstrate each continent’s connection with one of the four directions. The four directions is a way of organizing knowledge and practices in some indigenous communities of North America, the meaning and use of which is culture and time specific.

The reunion of the four continents also emphasizes the symmetry between each of the compositions, allowing viewers more opportunity to explore relationships and contrasts in Monkman’s analysis of the state of the world. Indeed, there are many moments within each panel and seemingly endless possibilities for interpretation and analysis, and The Four Continents demonstrates technical skill, keen analysis, and an authentic voice — the kind of artistic mastery born of years of dedication and uncompromising self-awareness.

In conversation, Monkman cautioned me about what he called “pop art,” not unlike the “junk food art” described by Wideman, and talked about artists chasing after fleeting trends to achieve brief amounts of fame. That type of art making, he explained, doesn’t reflect the time and energy required to produce something that uses the full force of what art is truly capable of giving to the world.

The Four Continents began 10 years ago as a failed proposal for the Venice Biennale, and once he actually started painting, it took him five years to complete.

Monkman started his career as an abstract painter, and worked in that style for 12 years before he found his current artistic vision. His first forays into representational work addressed colonialism and homophobia by reproducing 19th century paintings with subversive scenes of seduction and sexual conquest. Emboldened, his work took on increasingly complex issues and compositions, incrementally making advancements toward The Four Continents.

Monkman said in his talk that satire and humour have been an accessible way for him to enter into conversation with heavy and complicated topics, but he said he feels his artistic journey has equipped him to more seriously address colonialism in Canada.

In light of Canada’s 150 year anniversary, Monkman’s most recent painting will depict what the last 150 years have been like for many Indigenous peoples in Canada, in all its horror and beauty. I can’t imagine a better candidate to reveal this truth to the ages.