Volume XIII, Number 1, Spring 2017


"Cher’s “Half-Breed” and the Hybrid Masquerades of Kent Monkman’s Miss Chief Testickle" by Penny Cousineau-Levine

Penny Cousineau-Levine is an art writer and theoretician with a particular interest in photography and performance art. Her 2003 book Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination was the first in-depth examination of Canadian photography and identity, and was short-listed for the Raymond Klibansky Prize for Best English Language Book in the Humanities. Her writing has also appeared in Afterimage, Arts Canada, Parachute and other art journals, and in numerous exhibition catalogues. She is currently working on a book on the strategy of masquerade in contemporary art. She has taught at Montreal’s Concordia University and is currently the Graduate Program Director in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa.

My father married a pure Cherokee
My mother’s people were ashamed of me
The Indians said I was white by law
The White Man always called me “Indian Squaw.”

Half-breed, that’s all I ever heard
Half-breed, how I learned to hate the word
Half-breed, she’s no good they warned
Both sides were against me since the day I was born.

We never settled, went from town to town
When you’re not welcome you don’t hang around
The other children always laughed at me
“Give her a feather, she’s a Cherokee.”

We weren’t accepted and I felt ashamed
Nineteen I left them, tell me who’s to blame
My life since then has been from man to man
But I can’t run away from what I am.

Half-breed, that’s all I ever heard
Half-breed, how I learned to hate the word
Half-breed, she’s no good they warned
Both sides were against me since the day I was born.

(Half-Breed,1 as performed by Cher)

In 1995, the New York-based photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, who had previously documented what they called the “hidden history” of black cowboys, and their legacy in African-American riding clubs and rodeos, completed a photographic series titled “German Indians.”2 The project featured images of costumed adults and children attending an annual festival celebrating the birthday of German writer Karl May. May’s best-selling, late nineteenth-century adventure stories, said to be admired by, among others, Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein, were situated in the American Old West and centered on the characters of the German railway man Old Shatterhand and his trusty Apache side-kick Winnetou. These wildly popular novels, and the theatrical works and films they spawned, have given rise to the carefully crafted “Indian” dress of Karl May festival participants, and that of thousands of “Indian” hobbyists to be found today throughout Europe.

In a 2012, New York Times Book Review interview, movie action hero and erstwhile politician Arnold Schwarzenegger stated that as a child, he too was affected by what he called May’s “fantastic stories about this wise Apache chief… and his cowboy friend,” even as he acknowledged that May had never met a cowboy or encountered a First Nations individual (9). While the effect of May’s fables on Schwarzenegger might be most generously characterized as inspirational – he says the stories taught him “a strong powerful lesson about getting along despite differences” (9), the adoption of ersatz North American Aboriginal dress and fantasized ways of living by Karl May hobbyists and theme park stage performers constitutes an identification manifesting itself in a phenomenon Katrin Sieg has referred to as “ethnic drag” (2). Sieg considers that the motivation for these leisure-time fakeries, with their pretence of preserving Aboriginal culture, is not merely a yearning for an idealized pre-modernity. She speculates that the “centrality of the [Apache] Winnetou figure” in these dramas “attest[s] to the intense emotional and erotic investment in the racialized body of the Other and allows for the expression of grief over mass murder, even as that death [the presumed demise of the First Nations] is presented as unavoidable” (113). As we shall see, the fictional Winnetou figure is one in which the Canadian Cree-Anglo/ Irish artist Kent Monkman3 also has a significant investment; an awareness of the myth-making of Karl May, and particularly of the “Indian” Winnetou, has been pivotal in Monkman’s artistic negotiation of his hybrid “racial”4 and cultural heritage. Before turning to the artistic production of Kent Monkman, however, it may be instructive to examine a work by another artist who, like Monkman, adopts the stratagem of the alter-ego to address the challenges of hybrid identity. Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro, first performed in 1964, effects a powerful reversal of the blatant and dehumanizing ethnic drag of American blackface minstrel shows, which persisted in the US well into the last century. The female “myselves” of the drama’s central protagonist, Negro-Sarah, appear throughout the play wearing white masks, above which can be seen their kinky black hair. This ambivalent, incomplete masking seems designed to provide dramatic illustration of Frantz Fanon’s seminal 1952 treatise Black Skin, White Masks, a psychoanalytical discussion of the inevitability of self-hatred on the part of black subjects colonized by white political/cultural regimes.

As Kennedy’s “faceless” (Kennedy, 7) Negro-Sarah grapples with her mixed “racial” ancestry, she cycles through various guises, saying that she “find[s] it necessary to maintain a stark fortress against recognition of myself ” (9). The constant refrain of her several selves is that “[m]y mother looked like a white woman, hair as straight as any white woman’s. And at least I am yellow, but [my father] is black, the blackest one of them all. I hoped he was dead. Yet he still comes through the jungle to find me” (6). Negro-Sarah’s alter-egos (the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria, Jesus Christ, and the martyred Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba) give voice to her “funnyhouse” inner chaos and a fragmented sense of identity generated by the imbibing of essentializing images of her African and Anglo-European forebears. She believes that her father not only raped, but also killed her mother, and thereby “killed the light” (22) she associates with whiteness; stereotypes of blackness and whiteness form a toxic, calcified binary that she is unable to escape. Negro-Sarah is able to articulate an awareness of her hybrid “racial” position only by saying that she is “in between” (13). She cannot see the possibility of reconciliation between her warring personae –“I clung loyally to the lie of relationships, again and again seeking to establish a connection between my characters” (10). Refusing the promised salvation of a “return to Africa” that might “save the race” and “find revelation in the black” (20), Sarah’s identification with Lumumba offers no more relief or resolution than do her esteemed white alter-egos, and the play ends in her suicide. Within this scenario of irreconcilable “racial” identifications, even Jesus cannot point the way out of Negro-Sarah’s torturous “funnyhouse.”

Blackfoot artist Faye HeavyShield of the Kainai-Blood Nation was raised on a reserve in Alberta, where she spoke both Blackfoot and English; she attended a Catholic residential school and received a mainstream Canadian university art education. In a poetic text accompanying her 1995 sculpture tightrope walker, HeavyShield echoes Negro-Sarah’s desire to “establish a relationship between” her bifurcated identities, writing that: “inching along the tightrope/ across this grand old canyon/ I slipped I sliced myself in two/ in momentary afterthought/my halves bothered themselves/ with vague notions of reunion/ but the wind hissed by and hope spiraled off/ in buffoonish retreat (quoted in Fowler, 66).” Although HeavyShield does not enlist the artistic device of the alter-ego, her sense of divided identity chimes with that of Kennedy’s protagonist. “Hope” is lost in what can be read as HeavyShield’s search for accord between competing Eurocentric and Aboriginal “selves,” but within the work of Kent Monkman such a “reunion” is achieved in artistic representations of his persona Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Monkman’s invention of his alter-ego Miss Chief, a provocative, cross-dressing minx who holds forth and wreaks havoc with established representations in the artist’s paintings, videos and live performances, demonstrates the artist’s consciousness of the complex inter-relationships between and among the cultural constructions of identity to which he does not hesitate to lay claim. Miss Chief’s exuberant assumption of her multiple identities stands in stark contrast to the tragic conclusion of Kennedy’s dramatic narrative of conflicting “racial” and gender selves.

In a 1996 article entitled “Who Needs ’Identity’?,” cultural theorist Stuart Hall reminds us that “[i]dentities are… constituted within, [and] not outside representation” (4), and this insight leads Hall, by way of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage of psychological development, to a discussion of identification. Lacan defines identification as “the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image” (2). Lacanian scholar Dylan Evans translates this simply as “recognis[ing] oneself” in an image, and “appropriate[ing] the image as oneself” (81). As Deborah Thompson points out, all of the masks in Funnyhouse of a Negro, including the ebony one worn by the father “myself,” “both emphasize the falsity of racial roles and spotlight their primacy to any self-identity” (21). Similarly, Miss Chief’s strategic identification with the image of the “half-breed” as represented in song and video by the celebrity Cher, who herself claims mixed Armenian, Cherokee and French ancestry (Marsan, 58), at once interrogates and affirms that culturally disparaged identity.

 

Fig. 1. Kent Monkman. Study for Artist and Model, 2003. Acrylic on canvas, 20 in. x 24 in.

 

Miss Chief first appeared in Monkman’s work in his lush 2003 painting Study for Artist and Model (Fig. 1). The work reverses historical representational positions, as Miss Chief apes the pseudo-ethnographic and colonizing gaze of nineteenth-century painters like Paul Kane and Cornelius Kreighoff, who produced romanticized and often inaccurate renditions of Canadian Native life. In Artist and Model, the dazzling Miss Chief is seen at her easel, loincloth fluttering in the air, bow and arrow in one hand, paintbrush in the other. Her pale-skinned model is nude (save for cowboy hat and boots) and tied to a tree, shot full of phallic arrows, à la Saint Sebastian, erection in full view. Miss Chief made her performance debut in 2004 when she appeared in Monkman’s film Group of 7 Inches, produced in revered Canadian landscape painter Tom Thomson’s re-located cabin on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, albeit without the knowledge of gallery administrators. (The title of the film, to Canadian audiences, is an obvious send-up of the venerated Group of Seven painters whose images have served to represent and define the national landscape in the popular imagination for generations). Here again Miss Chief inverts the colonial representational equation by presenting herself as a painter studying two young white men and documenting their curious ways, all the while seducing her unwitting specimens with alcohol and titillation. Similarly, the 2005 short film Taxonomy of the European Male (Fig. 2) documents a performance in which Miss Chief investigates two young non-Native men as anthropological case studies. Monkman ironically emulates the journals and sketchbooks of colonizing North American artists and explorers in his 2005 limited edition book The Moral Landscape: Hunting Scenes and Other Amusements of the Great Wild West. In the work’s subtitle, “Wanderings of a Cree half-breed artist among the white men of North America, from the Kentucky Valley to the Western Plains and the Rocky Mountains,” he refuses to shun the epithet used to slur First Nations individuals of mixed heritage.

 

Fig. 2. Kent Monkman. Taxonomy of the European Male, 2005. Colour film, 16:36 min.

 

Monkman’s identification with the categorization “half-breed” is not insignificant; the destructiveness of this essentializing label was demonstrated in a 1958 Western Canadian study indicating that non-Natives thought an Aboriginal individual of mixed “race” was “half-breed” if: “the person lives in poor housing; does not live as a White person; lives like the Indians; performs menial tasks; has a poor standard of living” (Lussier, n.p.). The narrator of Beatrice Culleton’s 1983 novel April Raintree says that:

Being a half-breed meant being poor and dirty. It meant being weak and having to drink. It meant being ugly and stupid. It meant living off white people. And giving your children to white people to look after. It meant that kids like me, had to take what kids like [the children in her foster family] gave, and none of that was good. (quoted in Lundgren, 63-64)

Undaunted, Miss Chief assumes the image of the “half-breed,” a representation which is a travesty not only of the identity of a denigrated Other, but of Monkman’s own “racially” hybrid self. Further complicating and intersecting this “racially” mixed image, Monkman addresses his understanding of Miss Chief’s gender identification:

I created Miss Chief to represent a person of the third gender… As an artist, she has come to life in various guises, often straddling a place between performance diva and a supernatural spirit or trickster. Using the power of her own sexuality, she rampages through history kind of like a superhero, asking provocative questions. (quoted in Markonish 223)

Miss Chief straddles genders as well, identifying as “two-spirited” (Mason, n.p.). Trista Wilson notes that “[m]any Native American cultures historically recognized a ‘third gender’ that was considered neither male nor female, and not confined to the ‘gender-binary, bodily-sex-equals-gender’ belief that existed among European society at the time.” Rather, “[a]lmost all tribes had a sophisticated way of understanding sexuality and how it could shape an individual’s identity” (170-171). These “women-men” were not expected to adhere to traditional gender behaviours, and were often believed to be spiritually gifted. Miss Chief’s bold and unequivocal declaration of her identity as a woman-man is an assertion that missionaries and the values of settler communities have not entirely succeeded in suppressing the sexual and gender mores of the First Nations they “conquered.”

The 2010 music video Dance to Miss Chief (Fig. 3), a mash-up of footage from vintage German “Sauerkraut” Westerns and Monkman’s multi-channel video Dance to the Berdashe, was produced for the release of a track of Miss Chief’s dance club music. In the Dance to Miss Chief video the Winnetou personage is employed as a counterpoint against which to assert Miss Chief/ Monkman’s sense of self; the representation of May’s Winnetou is held up for ridicule as an essentializing cartoon.

 

Fig. 3. Kent Monkman. Dance to Miss Chief, 2010. Colour video, 04:49 min., English and German with English subtitles

 

The sound component of the Dance to the Berdashe video incorporates the strains of Igor Stravinsky’s seminal 1913 ballet score The Rite of Spring, known for its modernist exploration of “primitivism,” in a remix by Phil Strong, and includes bare-chested jazz dancers “resurrect[ing] another Aboriginal persona obscured by colonial history, the Aboriginal Dandy” (Aquin, n.p.). The video underlines Monkman’s capacity to reconcile hybrid artistic influences, as well as intersecting “racial” and gender identities. Describing a performance entitled Séance (Fig. 4) held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in October 2007, which took the form of an artistic ritual invoking the spirits of artists Paul Kane, George Catlin and Eugene Delacroix, Miss Chief stated that:

I wanted to respond to the work of my beloved Paul Kane, which is in the First Peoples Gallery [of the Royal Ontario Museum] and remains there as this voice of authority. I wanted to create a work that drew attention to some of the shortcomings of Paul Kane’s work. I thought he was a dear fellow, though he never did paint me and I still have a chip on my shoulder about that. He always told me I wasn’t authentic enough, as I was constantly travelling back and forth from Europe and always came back with the latest fashions. He didn’t see me as an authentic Aboriginal…[H]e had a certain contempt for me because I borrowed heavily from their culture. He saw it as a contamination! He wanted all of us Aboriginals to remain pure, in a state of authenticity as he called it… But the curators of the ROM refused to allow Miss Chief to show her work in the First Peoples Gallery! (Monkman quoted in Mattes, 100)

 

Fig. 4. Kent Monkman. Tall Tails, 2007. Installation detail showing costume worn by Monkman as Miss Chief in the performance Séance. Photo: Walter Willems

 

Miss Chief is here referring to the refusal of the Royal Ontario Museum to exhibit Monkman’s painting alongside that of Kane, whose artistry he admires but whose colonial representations of First Nations cultures he works to deconstruct. In evoking the spirits of Delacroix, Kane and Catlin for a discussion of painting, Monkman acknowledged the hybridity of his artistic practice and the European influences that have informed it. In his 2006 painting Trappers of Men, within a pastoral setting resembling the nineteenth-century American painter Albert Bierstadt’s 1868 Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (Robertson), a Native artist sits on the grass tracing syllabic characters on an animal skin. A balding white man in T-shirt and blue jeans, whiskey bottle in hand, holds up a stumbling artist in suit and bow-tie; the work on his easel indicates this must be the pre-eminent twentieth-century Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian. On the grass near them, a non-Native trader offers his wares, including guns and blankets, to another Native man. Here and elsewhere in his work, Monkman attests to the fact that his art has not “remain[ed] pure, in a state of [putative] authenticity” (Monkman quoted in Mattes, 100), as some aficionados of “Indian” art might wish.

The video Dance to Miss Chief addresses the exoticizing of Native Americans within the history of cinema; it also reveals a romance between Miss Chief and Winnetou, mirroring and sexualizing the relationship between Karl May’s Winnetou and his German friend. This perhaps indicates Monkman’s wish to come to terms with, as opposed to being subsumed by, the warped identity personified in May’s fictitious brave.

 

Fig. 5. Kent Monkman. Icon for a New Empire, 2007. Acrylic on canvas, 108 in. x 84 in.

 

A similar impulse might be seen to undergird his 2007 Pygmalionesque image Icon for a New Empire (Fig. 5), a painting in which the marble sculpture of a young Native on a horse has come to life to caress his red-haired creator. These and other couplings of Native and non-Native figures in Monkman’s work may have a personal significance for the artist beyond that of an institutional ideal of harmonious reconciliation between “races.” Erotic relations between Miss Chief and cowboys in assless chaps, or sexy male European settlers, may point to Monkman’s desire for painless co-existence between his hybrid “selves.” In shunning total identification with the counterfeit Winnetou, Monkman clearly differs from Robbins and Meyer’s costumed photographic sitters, and their misguided simulation of Aboriginal life as embodied in May’s typecast hero. The “German Indians” reveal themselves to be the “good subjects” of ideology, defined by linguist Michel Pêcheux as those “who [have] an easy or magical identification with dominant culture” (Muñoz, 12), in this case identification with the prevailing cultural trope of an idyllic “Indian” way of life. Monkman’s refusal to be defined by the stereotypical Winnetou role, on the other hand, is what José Esteban Muñoz has referred to as “counter-identification” (22). For Muñoz, an example of this is evident in the stage of feminist discourse “in which counter-identification with men is the only way in which one can become a woman” (22). Counter-identification with May’s literary representation Winnetou is not, though, the dominant identification in Monkman’s work; rather the image in which he appears to recognize himself is that of the pop diva Cher, who he credits as the principal inspiration for the equally glamorous and commanding Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (Liss, n.p.).

Monkman’s creation of Miss Chief can be understood as a strategy of masquerade. The film theorist Mary Ann Doane’s definition of masquerade has much in common with dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s concept of “distanciation” (Uhde, 28). Brecht felt that the actor “must distance his character: ‘show’ rather than incarnate him” (Barthes, 168-169), that is to say display, and not identify with, the personality being portrayed. Doane sees masquerade, in relation to women specifically, as a useful, strategic distancing device, whereby consciously putting on the culturally-mandated norms of femaleness allows a woman to create a space between that identity and herself, to relinquish total identification with conventional feminine roles, and thus remain free to scrutinize those facades (25-27). The American photographer Cindy Sherman’s portraits of herself assuming the appearance and attire of a myriad of socially constructed and regulated female roles, most notably in her well-known 1977-80 Untitled Film Stills series, function to provide this critical distance for the artist and her viewers.5 The philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray understands masquerade rather as precisely that construction of femininity women within patriarchy are called to adopt, and proffers instead “mimicry;” this calls for an active engagement with the prescribed role or masquerade in order to “begin to thwart it” (76). Expanding this definition to the arena of “race,” the burdensome and negating masks Kennedy’s Negro-Sarah takes on are culturally ordained “racial” and gender masquerades from which she is unable to extricate herself, or regard with the detachment Irigaray’s mimicry might provide. Irigaray suggests that “one must assume the…role deliberately,” “to make ‘visible,’ by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible” (Irigaray, 76). What Irigaray recommends for the woman looking to come out from under the social constructions of gender identity could equally apply to members of other communities, including those who understand their identities to be hybrid. Stuart Hall’s notion that there is no identity separate from representation resonates with the statement made decades earlier by the French photographer and writer Claude Cahun, who famously wrote on a collage comprised of eleven images of her face that “Sous ce masque un autre masque. Je n’en finirai pas de soulever tous ces visages” (183). (“Under this mask another mask. I will never finish lifting up all these faces.”) At the same historical moment, the British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere declared in a seminal 1929 essay that womanliness, what we might now term “essential femininity,” is nothing but a masquerade (94).

How might these theories of masquerade and strategic mimicry be relevant to Monkman’s Miss Chief Eagle Testickle? Irigaray’s use of the term “mimic” calls to mind post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s explication of colonial mimicry, the double bind in which the colonized subject inescapably finds herself or himself – enjoined to adopt the ways of the colonizer, yet always made aware that even in imitating the powers-that-be, he or she will never be recognized as authentic (121-131). This colonial predicament is brilliantly addressed in Nigerian-British Yinka Shonibare’s 1998 “Diary of a Victorian Dandy”6 suite of photographs, in which the black artist dons aristocratic period dress to re-enact scenes from William Hogarth’s eighteenth-century series of images of moral dissolution, A Rake’s Progress. Seeking the acceptance of colonial masters is not what Monkman’s Miss Chief is about. Rather she looks to disrupt, in her inimitable trickster style, our reception of the Eurocentric ideologies pervading art historical and other representations of the realities, including the sexual realities, of First Nations-Settler relationships.

 

Fig. 6. Kent Monkman. Miss Chief, Vaudeville Star from the series Miss Chief: The Emergence of a Legend, 2006. Collaboration with photographer Christopher Chapman and makeup artist Jackie Shawn. Chromogenic prints on metallic paper, 4.5" x 6.5" / 16" x 13.25" (framed)

 

Monkman hints at the masquerades and pseudonyms of “Indian-ness” that were laminated on to the bodies of First Nations film and stage performers of the past in his Emergence of a Legend photo series (Fig. 6). The photographs in the 2006 work are printed to resemble daguerreotypes, and show Monkman in drag, serving to forge the creation myth of Miss Chief and to recall Aboriginals who in the past performed for American and European audiences. Miss Chief Hunter appears as she might have in the travelling Wild West shows of the past, like those of Buffalo Bill and Buckskin Joe Hoyt. Miss Chief, Vaudeville Star and The Trapper’s Bride are perhaps channeling the spirit of Miss Molly Spotted Elk, a dancer and actor born in a Native community off the coast of Maine, who in the 1920s and 30s appeared in theatres in New York and Paris, sporting little more than a feathered head-dress. Cindy Silverscreen’s stage name alludes to the aliases given by Hollywood agents to Aboriginal actors, like that of Canadian Mohawk Harold J. Smith, a.k.a. Jay Silverheels (Monkman website). As she did in Group of 7 Inches and Artist and Model, in the photo Miss Chief, Film Director, Miss Chief takes back representational agency; here she is herself the operator of the camera, a nod perhaps to early photographers like the American Edward Curtis, who supplied artefacts and dress for the Aboriginal individuals he filmed and photographed, caring little to match his props to the communities from which they originated, or for the actual lives of the tribes he visited in his quest for images of a “noble” and “doomed” “race.”

The identification of Monkman’s alter-ego Miss Chief with the superstar Cher partakes of this same strategy of mimicry, one not of an ethnic drag staged in the get-up of a fetishized Other, but rather a defiant identification with the dominant culture’s sartorial and representational burlesques of his own hybrid demographic. Miss Chief’s identification with Cher is not only avowed, it is flamboyantly proclaimed. She first appeared under the moniker of Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle, which can be heard as Mischief Cher Egotistical. We might ask ourselves in what ways Monkman recognizes himself in the caricatural representation seen in the video7 made to accompany Cher’s 1973, top-of-the-charts hit Half-Breed, and how this identification serves him in his self-proclaimed mission to “[deal] with a violent history, a history that’s about decimation and an erasure of aboriginal cultures and of our historical narratives” (Monkman quoted in Goddard, E10). He says that it was to this end that he created the impish Miss Chief: “I’ve inserted myself as my alter ego into the work as a way of doing it in a lighthearted way”. The goal is “inserting our way of seeing this world originally represented through the European eye” (Monkman quoted in Goddard, E10).

 

Fig. 7. (left) Cher. Official Half-Breed Music Video, 1973. (CherChannelHD). Screen Capture

Fig. 8. (right) Cher. Official Half-Breed Music Video, 1973. (CherChannelHD). Screen Capture

 

Canned applause at the end of Cher’s Half-Breed video (Figs. 7 and 8) betrays its origin as a performance she gave on the popular 70s television program, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. In full make-up and a Bob Mackie-designed, sequined and beaded costume comprised of skimpy halter top, an approximation of the loin cloth traditionally worn by First Nations men, and trailing feathered head-dress, Cher sits on a somnambulant spotted horse, seeming blissfully immune to pesky questions of culture appropriation. Superimposed, crackling flames envelope a totem pole and Cher is shrouded in a ghostly white mist. As she sings of her hybrid Otherness in her fetishized “Indian” garb, she calls to mind nothing so much as a packaged “Native” Barbie doll, whose next commodified identity might be that of an astronaut or a ballerina. The enhanced production values of Cher’s more recent performances of the song do nothing to dispel this impression (Fig. 9).

 

Fig. 9. Cher. San Diego 2014 performance of Half-Breed. Video by adriano. Screen capture

 

Is Cher’s self-fashioning in her Half-Breed video any less dissimulating or demeaning a representation than those of Karl May? What does it mean for Monkman to identify with a pop star’s representation of generic “Indian-ness” that is as kitsch and as false as a souvenir shop beaded belt manufactured in Taiwan? Cher’s glammed-up Native chanteuse is pure pastiche, yet Miss Chief has nonetheless embraced this impersonation, and added a few personalized touches to Cher’s glitter and flowing head-dress: a Dreamcatcher Bra, Louis Vuitton quiver, Hudson’s Bay loincloth and come-hither beaded moccasin stiletto heels. Perhaps Monkman has sensed what Loran Marsan detects in Cher’s Half-Breed and others of the singer’s musical and film performances: that Cher is always in drag, even when appearing as “herself” and that “[t]he diverse ethnic identities she performs act in a… way such that it is all impersonation for her,” including the impersonation of femininity as well as, variously, an Italian-American, a Jewish woman, or a Native American, “creating an ambiguity of ethnic identity that challenges the idea of an original ethnicity as well” (51). Taking the long view of Cher’s 40-plus year career across several media, Marsan sees her “subversive potential com[ing] from the combination of all her ethnic and gendered enactments that together create a multiplicity of identifications that exposes the construction of identities and authenticity and rejects the idea of natural inherent (and confining) markers of Otherness” (61). In choosing to identify with Cher, in an act of mimicry akin to that advocated by Irigaray, Monkman as Mischief foregrounds his/ her “half-breed” identity. In doing so he not only distances himself from that historically negative image, signalling that it is a masquerade imposed on him by a racist society. He also broadcasts that “half-breed” is an identificatory image he is willing to own wholeheartedly, and to invest with new meaning as passionately as Miss Chief drapes herself in feather boas and chinchilla fur coats.

Esteban Muñoz has described a genus of identification he says is unique to the queer performer of colour, one he terms “disidentification,” which he contrasts to both positive and counter-identifications. It is within this framework that Monkman’s adoption of Cher’s Half-Breed “Indian” persona might be reconciled with his questioning of historic mis-representations of First Nations’ heritage. Muñoz is concerned with subjects for whom one “minoritarian positionality,” such as that of queerness, can make it difficult to enact identification with another marginalized position such as that of “person of colour” (8). He posits a “disidentificatory subject” who “tactically and simultaneously works on, with, and against a cultural form” (12), which Monkman can be seen to do in choosing to identify, or “dis-identify” with Cher’s problematic Half-Breed figure. Muñoz writes that: “The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications” (31). Muñoz cites the example of the Cuban and Puerto Rican-American performance artist Marga Gomez’s teenage recognition of herself in, and later performance of, stereotyped “lady homosexuals” who felt the need to disguise themselves in dark glasses and wigs for a 60s television interview.8 In a cultural context that provides a paucity of role models with which to identify, one takes what one can get and shapes this image, artistically, to one’s representational ends. With the performative strategy of disindentification, Muñoz says, the “code[s] of the majority” are adopted “as raw material for representing a disempowered…. positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (31).

 

Kent Monkman. Dance to the Berdashe, 2008. Five-channel video installation. Photo: Montreal Museum of Fine Art, Christine Guest

 

“Unthinkable” is precisely what the nineteenth-century painter and writer George Catlin deemed the berdashe or crossing-dressing First Nations individuals he encountered in his travels through the American West. In his 1844 memoirs, Catlin speaks of the dance to the berdashe, a ritual he depicted in painting and wrote of in his journals as “[o]ne of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs that I have ever met in Indian country… and … I wish it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.”9 In Monkman’s 5-channel video installation homage to the hybrid man-woman so disdained by Catlin, images of contemporary, top-hatted, parasol-wielding Aboriginal Dandies (Aquin), gyrating around the central projection of a sinuous, hip-swaying berdashe draped in torso-baring red silk, are projected onto screens shaped like bison skins. This Dance to the Berdashe re-visions Catlin’s representation of the two-spirit ceremonial dance as a jubilant, sensual affirmation of her sexuality and gender identity by the camp, Cher-inflected Miss Chief. In this and other works, Miss Chief’s recognition of herself in Cher’s Half-Breed guise is strategic, a disidentification that allows for the resisting of colonial, eradicating representations of mixed “race” and genders, even as she is kicking up her sexy red stiletto heels or flashing her racoon fur jockstrap. Miss Chief is the antithesis of the false mimesis performed by the Karl May devotees; ethnic drag is turned on its head and redeemed by the impertinent, hyperbolic excess of Monkman’s drag queen. Unlike Cher, who can only bemoan that being marked as “half-breed” has rendered her an untouchable Other, through the disidentification of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman lays claim to and transforms that nullifying identification, opening it up to new and subversive potential.

 

Works Cited

  • Aquin, Stéphane. “Dance to the Berdashe. Synopsis.” Urban Nation. Web. 22 June 2016.
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Websites Cited

 

Notes

1 Written by Al Capps and Mary Dean in 1973, this song was featured on Cher’s Half-Breed album released the same year.

2 These images can be viewed on the photographers’ website: http://robbinsbecher.com

3 Monkman’s works can be viewed on his website: http://www.kentmonkman.com

4 In this essay, “race” appears in quotation marks to acknowledge that the classification is a social construct with no basis in biological reality. Anthropological research indicates that, as Audrey Smedley writes, “[r]ace as a mechanism of social stratification and as a form of human identity is a recent concept in human history” (690). Smedley argues that as “the main form of human identity” in the United States, “it has had a tragic effect on low-status ‘racial’ minorities and on those people who perceive themselves as of ‘mixed race’” (690). The social consequences of this construct in Canada and elsewhere are analogous. [Audrey Smedley. “Race and the Construction of Human Identity.” American Anthropologist. 100. 3. (Sept. 1998): 690-702. JSTOR. Web. 17 June, 2016.]

5 This series and others by Sherman can be seen at: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/#/0/

6 These images can be viewed at: http://www.yinkashonibarembe.com

7 The Half-Breed video can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt9XDdzzp2k

8 Gomez’s work can be seen at: http://www.margagomez.com

9 In her article “Dancing with the Berdache by Kent Monkman: How to dance differently” (Esse. Hiver 2010. Web.), Ariane De Blois, states that this quote by George Catlin, “was placed as a preamble on the wall adjacent to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition room where Kent Monkman’s work Dance to the Berdashe was on display from May 6 to October 4, 2009.” She writes that the quote is taken from Catlin’s Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians, published in London in 1844.