Kent Monkman, The Daddies, 2016. Acrylic on canvas 152.4 x 285.75 cm. Collection of Christine Armstrong and Irfhan Rawji. © Kent Monkman. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Rose Anza-Burgess

Transforming Identities


Representation in art history has traditionally been the purview of the reigning class. Classical distinctions and categories of art is problematized in modern and contemporary movements breaking down barriers of classification. The transformation of identity, and society, lies in the heart of the discourse of failure. Jack Halberstam demonstrates that failure is the reverse narrative of triumph and success, and the inadequacy of a person is central to this idea of defeat. In this paper, the idea of failure is seen in different modes of representation: Kent Monkman’s The Daddies’s idea of failure is embedded through the collision of the subject and object relationship, exposing the failure of the traditional canon of historical painting to depict the body of a non-gender conforming figure, transforming the fundamental notion of failure as metaphor for triumph. Isaac Julien’s Frantz Fanon Black Skin White Mask situates the inadequacy of the colonized individual as a failure to exist among the colonial framework that he was born into. These works create new spaces to discuss ideas that relate to our contemporary society. Each work disturbs the gaze of power. It redefines identity in subject-object relations by drawing attention to movement and association as forces of destabilization. The identity of the Other is the collective identity of those who are deemed to be less significant, those who, by prejudiced standards of society, are deemed to be failures in history. In my reading of their works, failure is a way of feeling. Also, failure represents a place of being less than which offers the opportunity for change and transformation. These works challenge the idea of fixed identities, thereby changing the dynamics of looking, leaving it to the viewer to conjure up different ways of being and becoming in a world that is constantly in-flux, and changing.

Keywords: Canadian art history, queer representation.

My identity as both Filipino and Canadian is underscored by a dash bridging one with the other. Yet, my identity is neither one or the other. It has always been in-flux depending on who I am speaking or relating to. I think that everyone has this intersectionality where we feel like we do not fit in one category or the other. Sometimes, I get asked the question, what are you, or more subtly, where are you from? It implies that I don’t belong here. It is a question that alienated, and labels the other. It is a question that attempts to define identity in a binary category when really, it isn’t one or the other, it is both.

Jack Halberstam’s theory of The Queer Art of Failure argues that failure is the place in which change and transformation begins (2011, 96). For me, failure is this dash. In Halberstam’s words, failure is situated in the in-between, the fractures, and gaps of spaces where one can be liberated from being one or the other (Halberstam 2011, 99) - failure is the very idea of perpetuating the notion that one is better than the other. Failing offers a place of undoing and becoming that opens the self to more creative, cooperative, and more surprising ways of being in the world, in relation to one another (Halberstam 2011, 109). The idea of failure is the place of intersectionality. It offers more than a divided way of looking at the world, which proposes the notion that there is no us against them, and this is what I would like to share with you in the following images. I am use Affective Analysis (Marks 2018) as a method of formally examining and deconstructing each work. Marks’ method is a meticulously constructed approach to understand how bodies move through, and relate with each other in the physical world - how do others affect us, and how do we affect others. Using this methodology, I have situated Halberstam’s theory of failure as the site of transforming identity and society. Affective Analysis delves into the formation and transmission of knowledge that only the body can do.

Applying this methodology, the first work that I would like to share is a painting from 2016, created by Kent Monkman called The Daddies. The men are looking at a naked figure in the painting. In my process of Affective Analysis, I notice that my eyes widen as I move through each facial expression of these men who are wearing suits and bot ties. I can feel my body tense up. My shoulders rise, protecting my neck, a vulnerable part of my body. My heartbeat races as  my eyes become fixated on the figure of the naked body. My breathing progressively gets shallow the more I restrain myself from doing so. My intuition is telling me to look away because feelings of discomfort are associated towards the figure in the centre. Yet, the figure is telling me something different in the way that he or she moves his or her hand majestically. The figure is suggesting that, unlike me, he or she is not running away from the piercing gazes of these men. There is something about the pose, or the way the figure sits up that transforms my shame into pride.

At first glance, The Daddies suggest that it is a history painting where important figures of men are painted to immortalize their accomplishments. These men are the founding fathers of Canada. In 2017, Monkman unveiled his own intervention on the history of how Canada was founded, making this painting a gift to the nation as Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary. Here, The Daddies is a physical, life-size group portrait created through an old medium as a way of rewriting the relationship of land and identity in Canada. He creates the painting in a way that challenges how the viewer situates their own identity in relation to viewing the subject of the painting. History painting speaks about the duties and activities of people, usually suggesting a subservient attitude towards those in power (Taylor 2000, 16). History paintings are also, usually, activated by their own visual vocabulary which convey an attitude that viewers must adhere to (Barenscott 2018). However, Monkman breaks this unified sense of nationalism in the historical genre of painting. His painting suggests a fracture, a break in this tradition of historical portraiture, and by extension, a break from traditional modes of representing power and authority within a nation. He adds his body, the body of a queer and indigenous person into the historical genre of portraiture as a way of re-writing, and re-painting the history of Canada, adding those who have been erased from its history.

Monkman paintings himself - his own alterego, his drag persona called Miss Chief Eagle Testickle (Baird, 2017). Applying Hack Halberstam’s theory of The Queer Art of Failure in Monkman’s work, The Daddies is an uncomfortable portrayal of identity exposing the unspoken narrative of indigenous and queer representation. His nude figure becomes a representation of the Other which also becomes the embodiment of failure in a heteronormative and postcolonial society. Failure in this lens is the transgression of the male body to adhere to its masculinity. In the same way as the female body fails to adhere to norms of femininity. Miss Chief’s exaggerated femininity is frowned upon, it is seen as less than. More importantly, failure in Monkman’s representation of queer identity is the failure to conform to the rules that impose restrictions on the body and the identity of the other. Miss Chief transforms the way in which we look at bodies that transgress strict notions of normality in gender. Monkman uses the historical genre of portraiture as a way of transforming identity. He exhibits gender as a way of seeing and being that employs an element of fluidity which transgresses the boundaries of being male or female. The body of the nude figure also becomes a metaphor for indigenous land, suggesting that the viewer closely examine their own relationship with the land that they are situated on. The body of Miss Chief is a metaphor for indigenous land that questions the national identity of Canada, which is rooted in the erasure of indigenous peoples and their history.

The other work that I would like to share is Isaac Julien’s moving-image, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask created in 1995. The film, according to Julien, is a collage and montage of Frantz Fanon’s writing. Fanon questioned the idea of racism during the early part of the twentieth century stating that it was an irrational process that depersonalizes others (Julien, 1995). Cinema provides a direct view on this reality. It is a reflexive medium where the social environment is examined. Julien was interested in showing the violence of racism and how that resonates in our culture. In one of his interviews, he states that violence is committed on a social level as we live in a time where the social environment is examined (British Film Institute, 2017). Julien was interested in showing the violence of racism and how that resonates in our culture. He states that violence is committed on a social level as we live in a time where there is a resurgence of colonial and racist attitudes.

In the film, Julien exploits the gaze as a method of instituting subtle kinds of violence. The gaze itself passes judgment on others and is therefore in and of itself an act of depersonalization. Julien uses the cinematic medium discursively and pictorially, manipulating it not just to reflect or meditate on life. He also uses it to mediate the social conditions that construct identities as perceived permanent structures which seemingly cannot be undone, and he does so by underlining the struggle of racial identity through our very own gaze. In the film, Julien exploits the gaze as a method of imprisoning the identity of the Other into a fixed category, situating the Other at the mercy of the person who is looking. He transforms the idea of fixed identity of individuals as one that is continuously changing, and in flux. In the politics of looking, we, as viewers, are implicated by our own gaze. We bring our own assumptions in constructing notions of race and identity as a place of isolation or denigration.

The identity of the Other is the collective identity of those who are deemed to be less significant, those who, by prejudiced standards of society, are deemed to be failures in history. Both Kent Monkman and Isaac Julien intervene with the dominant historical archive that pits groups of people as winners or losers in history. In my reading of both artists’ works, failure is a way of feeling. Also, failure represents a place of being less than which offers the opportunity for change and transformation. Both works challenge the idea of fixed identities, thereby changing the dynamics of looking, leaving it to the viewer to conjure up different ways of being and becoming in a world that is constantly in-flux and changing.


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About the Author

Rose Anza-Burgess earned her MA in Comparative Media Art at Simon Fraser University. She has held multiple teaching assistant positions in the School for the Contemporary Arts, Department of English, and the Department of Humanities at the university. She also served as a research assistant in the department. She has a background in curating, event production, public exhibitions, and public speaking. Her practice interrogates the intersection of gender and identity in-flux and in-transformation through the cinematic and painterly forms of traditional and contemporary media. Her graduate research conveys a unique understating of the consequential periods of time that result to transformative changes in the way we see, feel, and interact with the world around us.

Acknowledgements to Laura U. Marks, Denise Oleksijczuk, Peter Dickinson, Dorothy Barenscott, and Claudette Lauzon for their lively intellectual contributions. And a special thank you to my wife, my editor, Kasia Anza-Burgess.

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