Dubbed Nativity Scene, the installation by First Nations artist Kent Monkman features a Virgin Mary decked out in a Chicago Blackhawks jersey, beavers with angel wings in the place of lowing cattle, and a native Baby Jesus whose swaddling is a Hudson’s Bay blanket.
Provocative work by artist Kent Monkman on display until Sunday at Museum London
Instead of gold, myrrh and frankincense, there’s Coca-Cola, a tin of Spam and a jerry can of gasoline.
And Londoners — through their donations to Museum London — paid for it.
The controversial piece, commissioned to spur conversation about First Nations issues, has been on tour during Canada 150 celebrations. It’s on display until Sunday here in London, then will come home to be part of the museum’s permanent collection in March after finishing its tour.
“Most artists don’t set out to be provocative or offensive for the sake of doing so,” said Brian Meehan, the museum’s executive director and chief curator. “There’s always that risk when you try and move the conversation along.”
So far, Meehan says Museum London has received no complaints stemming from Nativity Scene. Monkman, an artist of Cree ancestry from Northern Manitoba, is known for his sense of humour bordering on sarcasm.
“He’s doing some really meaningful work right now,” Meehan said. “(Nativity Scene’s) whole intention is to further discussion around our past with the First Nations.”
Arriving so close to Christmas, the risk is that angry Christians in London will be offended at the appropriation of their traditional religious imagery to make a political point. “(Artists) want to raise questions so that people talk,” Meehan said. “That’s why a piece like this is so important. It does raise a lot of questions.”
With his other exhibitions, like Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, the artist has touched on issues around truth and reconciliation and such events as the Sixties Scoop.
He is known for using the figure of drag queen Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle in his work; however, in Nativity Scene, the Jesus, Mary and Joseph figures all have Monkman’s own face — a comment on the use of stock native faces in galleries and museums that Monkman has visited.
Nativity Scene was purchased using donations generated by the museum’s volunteer committee, which is being honoured on Thursday at a ceremony where Monkman will be present. Meehan invited Monkman to deliver a lecture during his time in the Forest City, but he won’t be able to do so during this visit.
“I’m not sure Kent is going to speak or not,” said Meehan, adding he’s “not concerned” about any possible backlash to Nativity Scene.