ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Scroll quickly enough past a photograph of Kent Monkman’s new installation, “Scent of a Beaver,” at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, and you might mistake it for a painting. You don’t have to be an art historian to recognize the aesthetic, but those steeped in the canon of European classical painting might readily identify Monkman’s riff on “The Swing” (c. 1767), a Rococo masterpiece by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
In Monkman’s installation, which falls somewhere between a tableau vivant and the kind of scene you might find inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, the young lady who is the central figure of “The Swing” is replaced by the artist’s alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. She is a solemn, high-cheekboned, female iteration of Monkman’s own image, with dark hair that’s been piled in a Rococo-style wig appointed with First Nations ornamentation, a ruffled and embroidered dress trimmed in fur, and moccasin-clad feet kicking forward to match the action of the swing. This character, variously outfitted, recurs within Monkman’s body of performance, video, and static installations. Her presence contributes a genderqueer element that honors the non-binary identities that are an accepted mode of existence within some indigenous traditions, and acts as a vehicle through which Monkman explores issues of cultural identity, colonialism, and the process of rebuilding personal mythology in the face of whitewashed history.