Bête Noire by Kent Monkman. Revenge by Diorama

The first dioramas to represent animals in their natural habitat were introduced into North American natural history museums at the end of the 1880s. Although these displays were directly inspired by the dioramas Louis Daguerre had devised in 1822, they differed with regard to one crucial point: the introduction of the third dimension. While Daguerre’s dioramas were above all theatrical shows that sought to create the illusion of reality through lighting effects on scenes painted on both sides of a canvas, the museum dioramas achieved this in a far more effective way by playing on the visual contiguity between a three dimensional scene, containing one or several figures, and a panoramic backdrop painted in trompe-l’oeil.1 This new display, which strove to be both educational and entertaining, presented a strange mixture of reality and fiction. On the one hand, the fur or plumage of stuffed animals and the plant elements that were added after each expedition to the represented site, and on the other, a painted landscape and setting, as well as figures that were carefully sculpted to reproduce a sense of live action. To this end, these figures, which made up the initial museum dioramas, were first meticulously shaped in clay to render the slightest details of the animals’ anatomy and then covered with the skin layer.2 The result of the display was spectacular: the public, viewing the scene from behind a glass pane, was literally immersed in a natural environment with an illusionistic effectiveness that had never been achieved in the visual arts, even if it had been dreamed of this since Greek antiquity with trompe-l’oeil and theatre set painting—a case in point being the anecdote, recounted by Pliny the Elder, about birds flying down to peck at the grapes painted by Zeuxis. At the dawn of the 20th century, the appearance of ethnographic dioramas in which figures made out of plaster represented the First Peoples, was to further intensify the display’s fantastic aspect.

One understands why the diorama’s pre-film aesthetic with its combination of painting, sculpture, photography and theatre, nowadays fascinates contemporary artists such as Marcel Dzama, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and so on with its dreamy and spectacular dimension, which reactivates the animist reflex images have always been triggered in the human mind. Among these artists, contemporary Indigenous artists have particularly focused on exploring the ideological mechanisms at work in the displays. Actually, the very first dioramas dedicated to wildlife were not only intended to educate or entertain, they were also created to sharpen the national sentiment of American citizens by teaching them to respect and love the country’s vast spaces, the wilderness that distinguished the United States from most of the industrialized countries. We know, for instance, that the American president Theodore Roosevelt created some wildlife refuges, such as the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida in 1903, after having seen the dioramas of these sites at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. This concern for protecting endangered species rapidly spread to Indigenous peoples, but with a major difference in regard to the pelicans or buffaloes: it is not the future of these peoples that was the object of conservation, but their past.3 The ethnographic dioramas were effectively the perfect expression of the Vanishing Indian,4 this widely held belief at the time that the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas (Plains Indians, Inuit, Peruvian Indians) were facing accelerated extinction and that it was urgent to preserve the traces of their glorious past, which occurred before their contact with the Europeans. This myth, which was as widespread in the nascent field of anthropology and the mass entertainment industry (universal exhibitions, movies, parades) as in modern art, the primitivist reaction that can be traced back to the 19th century, was not solely based on the observation of a dramatic demographic decline in Indigenous populations—quite real at the end of the 19th century—it was also very much fuelled by the idea that the “noble Indian” could not resist the assault of modern civilization and would soon be completely assimilated by it.

It is precisely this myth of the Vanishing Indian and its stereotyped conception of First Peoples that contemporary Indigenous artists nowadays seek to overthrow by revisiting the diorama display. This was the case, for example, with two works presented at the second edition of the Contemporary Native Art Biennial at Art Mûr in Montréal (May-June 2014): Wendy Red Star’s (Crow) photographic series The Four Seasons (2006) played on the kitsch and overstated aspect of ethnographic dioramas, and Adrian Stimson’s (Blackfoot) installation Beyond Redemption (2010) questioned, among other things, the role of sculpture in dioramas, presenting a stuffed buffalo surrounded by several buffalo pelts simply laid on pedestals. But it is undoubtedly Kent Monkman a Cree/Anglo/Irish artist who has embarked on this exploration with the greatest fervour in his yearly productions (one installation per year since 2011) that focus directly on the aesthetics of the diorama. In 2011, The Collapsing of Time and Space in an Ever Expanding Universe recreated a Parisian apartment lodging Miss Chief Eagle Testikle, the artist’s alter ego, and various stuffed animals (a beaver, a coyote, a raven); Lot’s Wife in 2012, a tribute to the artist’s Cree grandmother, presented a dialogue between sculpture and video, and in 2013, The Big Four, an installation in which video also played an important role, was produced for the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede. The last installation to date, Bête Noire, first presented in spring 2014 at Sargent’s Daughters gallery in New York and then at the new biennial in Santa Fe SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas until the beginning of 2015, is the most interesting for our purposes because it is the one among the four works that most faithfully reproduces the original diorama. One of the singularities of Bête Noire is that it is not concerned with the aesthetics of the diorama in general, but cites a very specific diorama: the one that welcomes visitors at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. This diorama, which was created in 1970,5 shows a 19th century buffalo hunt in the Red River region where the Metis Nation was founded.6 The foreground is made up of a Metis hunter on horseback holding a shotgun as he chases a stampeding buffalo herd. The spectacular effect is heightened by the visitors’ position in front of the buffalos, literally in the centre of the action. The reference to this diorama has a personal dimension for Monkman, who was born in Ontario to a Cree father and an Anglo-Irish mother, but who spent his entire childhood in Winnipeg. He recounts how he visited the Manitoba Museum on several occasions with his school and how he always came away feeling disturbed by the difference he observed between the Metis hunter frozen in a glorious past and the Native people in downtown Winnipeg, many of whom are homeless.7 In the Bête Noire installation, the Manitoba Museum diorama echoes a painting of panoramic dimensions (180 / 301 cm), The Last of the Buffalo (1888), by landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, one of the 19th century artists Monkman has most often “revisited” due to his historical omissions and errors regarding the First Nations. This is also the case with this  painting, the title of which as well as certain of its iconographic elements (such as the pile of carcasses) insinuate that the First Nations hunters, armed solely with their spears, were responsible for the near extinction of the buffalo in the 19th century, when it is obvious that this was due to hunters of European descent, among whom Buffalo Bill is the most famous, who were involved in the very profitable fur trade. Let us also note that Monkman is, of course, aware of the fact that the myth of the Vanishing Indian often associated the fate of the First Nations with that of the buffaloes, the populations of both having declined from several tens of millions before the arrival of the Europeans to several hundred thousand by the mid 19th century. For example, during his travels to the prairies in 1832-1839 the American painter and traveler George Catlin, another of Monkman’s favourite targets, wrote down his “contemplations on the probable extinction of buffaloes and Indians.” 8

Bête Noire thus directly takes on the myth of the Vanishing Indian that permeates the Winnipeg diorama. While the panoramic backdrop is an almost literal reworking of the background in Bierstadt’s painting (a vast valley with grazing buffaloes), the foreground is a three-dimensional scene reproducing a particular type of buffalo hunt. On a grass and shrub-covered mound, the display shows a life-size wax statue of Miss Chief, perched on a real motorbike, contemplating a buffalo at her feet that she has just shot down with two pink arrows. Her arms open, in a gesture of visible satisfaction and pride, the Indian princess appears to be conversing with a stuffed coyote standing not far from her. The slain buffalo is reduced to a two-dimensional cubist collage that strongly contrasts with the volume of the other figures. The flatness clearly refers to the modernist dogma of painting as decreed by Clement Greenberg, but also primitivism, which strongly impacted the modernist tradition, from Gauguin to Picasso and Emily Carr. Fascinated by the forms of primeval art and convinced that the golden age of Indigenous peoples belonged to a time immemorial, this modernist primitivism also partakes in the myth of the Vanishing Indian. Traces of this belief can also be found in contemporary art, as in I like America, America likes me by Joseph Beuys who came to New York in 1974 to dialogue with a coyote, which symbolized the First Nations’ spirituality, but also, according to him, their extinction. With Bête Noire the artist makes a tit-for-tat proposition: primitivism is dead and it’s Miss Chief who is radiant.

While Kent Monkman once again shows us that he is indeed the present-day “bête noire” of 19th and 20th century colonial visual culture, his last installation also emphasizes one of the internal contradictions that has haunted the museum diorama since its inception: its fantastic dimension has always linked it to carnival shows—even if its promoters vigorously attempted to deny this facet, highlighting the educational mission of the display. Nevertheless, for the late 19th century New York public there was no real difference between the AMNH and P.T. Barnum’s American Museum (nicknamed the “prince of charlatans,” Barnum remains famous for his freak shows), which owned the most beautiful collection of natural history of the period, but exhibited it primarily for sensationalist purposes. Due to a strange combination of circumstances, Barnum’s museum, also located in New York, burned to the ground in 1868 several months before the AMNH opened, which consequently was viewed as the former’s successor in matters of show business. Moreover, one of the AMNH’s early highlights was the diorama Arab Courier Attacked by Lions by the French taxidermist Jules Verreaux, which combined stuffed animals and a plaster human figure in a highly dramatic scene.9 Uncomfortable with the success of this not particularly educational display, the AMNH directors sold it to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh where it is still on view to this day. This enchanting aspect of the diorama, which reawakens the viewer’s animist reflexes, is still very much present in contemporary audiences, as was borne out by the success of the 2006 Hollywood comedy A Night at the Museum, in which the diorama’s wax figures came to life at night, one of whom was Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman who was the guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 19th century. In Bête noire, it is not Sacagawea who comes back to life, but rather Miss Chief, who is determined to take her revenge on colonial cultural history.

Translated by Bernard Schütze

 

Jean-Philippe Uzel is an art history professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal and a member of the Centre interuniversitaire d’études et de recherches autochtones (CIÉRA). In 2012-2013 he held the Chaire d’études du Québec contemporain at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. His research interests broadly focus on the relationships among the visual arts, culture and society within the aesthetics of modernity. He has recently published several articles on contemporary aboriginal art in collective works in Quebec (Monde et réseaux de l’art, 2000; L’Indécidable, 2008) and abroad (Cannibalismes disciplinaires, 2009 ; La fonction critique de l’art, 2009).

 


  1. Always seeking to enhance the realistic effect, in the 1830s Daguerre introduced objects or live animals at the foot of these dioramas, but without however modifying the general logic of his display. See Stephen Quinn, Windows on Nature, 2006, New York, Abrahm/ AMNH, p. 13.
  2. Even today visitors to the third floor of the AMNH can see the sequence of dioramas dedicated to the birds of North America, the primates and then the Woodland and Plains “Indians.”
  3. Brewton Berry, “The Myth of the Vanishing Indian,” Phylon, 1960, vol. 21, no. 1, p. 51-57.
  4. Note that in January 2014, the Manitoba Museum inaugurated a new mini-diorama titled The Aschkibokahn mini-diorama, showing the activities of an Anishinaabe family about 800 ago.
  5. Though the bison (or North American buffalo) is one of the most often represented species in the natural history dioramas, several ethnographic dioramas represent Aboriginals hunting buffaloes, such as the one at the Milwaukee Public Museum, or in the process of skinning the bovids after the hunt, as is the case for the one displayed at the Batoche National Historical site museum.
  6. Statement made by the artist during a public talk at the Cinémathèque québécoise de Montréal on January 29, 2014.
  7. George Catlin, Letters And Notes On The Manners, Customs, And Conditions Of North American Indians, vol. I, letter 31., New York, Wiley & Putnam, 1842, p. viii.
  8. Alison Griffiths, Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture, New York, Columbia University Press, 2002, p. 27-28.