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The Noble Savage Was a Drag Queen: Hybridity and Transformation in Kent Monkman's Performance and ... - page 6 / 19

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Reversing the Colonial Gaze

Share's taxonomy reverses the gaze of white colonizer and Native subject, using

text taken directly from the letters and notes of famous colonial artists George Catlin and

Paul Kane, who were two of the most prolific artists in documenting Native peoples and

lives during the 19th century. Both have been highly celebrated in their respective

countries, the United States and Canada, for over a century. In a typical quote from one

of his letters, George Catlin writes: "I find that the principal cause why we underrate and

despise the savage, is generally because we do not understand him; and the reason why

we

are

ignorant

of

him

and

his

modes,

is

that

we

do

not

stoop

to

investigate."9

In

Monkman's performance, it is Share who plays the role of Catlin and his contemporaries,

investigating the savage and primitive white man, in an earnest attempt to understand

their

strange

habits,

dress,

and

physical

make-up

before

they

become

extinct.

The

performance immediately highlights how strange and uncivilized the white man is in

comparison to the glamorous, immaculately dressed Share. Share takes her complicit

models to her studio (the gallery), where she plies them with whiskey, forces them into

more European-style clothes, and ultimately exploits her position of power and authority

over them by making them pose for her. In the final act, Monkman's original landscape

paintings become a part of the performance, when Share reveals them as the final product

of

her

efforts at

the easel.

In this final

scene,

Share highlights the commodification of

9 Catlin, George. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians:

Written During Eight Years' Travel (1832-1839) Amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America. London: D. Bogue, 1844, p.102. The most striking things I found in reading Catlin's letters were how earnestly he believed he was doing the right and just thing, and the important role he felt he played in recording what appeared to be a dying race. While he claimed to like the "red man" and considered him to be human, his letters reflect a tone of colonial and patronizing racial superiority.

6

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