A Woman of Many Parts

Caroline Monnet is sitting under a tree in Central Park in New York. It is the day before the artist’s opening of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Montreal-based artist of Algonquin and French descent will show one video, Mobilize, in the main exhibition, and two more in the film complement of the exhibition that opens in September. Being included in the biennial is the most recent success in the 34-year-old Canadian’s quick ascendency. Monnet decided that being an artist was more than a hobby and something you could do as a way of life only when she moved to Winnipeg in 2007. When she left to live in Montreal five years later, she had earned a reputation as a successful filmmaker, winning the CBC jury prize for her first film, Ikwé. The word means “woman” in the Algonquin language, and the story is a mythological narrative of how knowledge is transferred from one generation to another. “The whispers of the moon tell me the ways,” the film says, and the imagery in the film is gorgeous, particularly a fullframed close-up of a woman’s face that has been painted red; the beauty of her physiognomy reads as a seductive and mysterious topography.

Film stills, Mobilize, 2015, NFB, 3 minutes.

Ikwé introduced qualities that continue to appear in Monnet’s films, videos, paintings and sculpture. It is personal, shot with a lyric precision and a nuanced appreciation of the textures of landscape, and is especially compelling to watch. It also contains the line “the collective memories of my ancestors is a glue to my being,” a connection that has remained at the centre of Monnet’s practice, whether in moving pictures or in pictures that hang on gallery walls. The film also introduced another characteristic of her art: the celebration of the matriarchal in Indigenous life and culture.

Creatura Dada, 2016, one of the films included in the Whitney Biennial, is a reimagining of what Dada would be had it been designed by Indigenous women. It is a visual feast in which six artists enthusiastically eat lobster and drink champagne. All the women on the guest list, which includes Caroline, her sister Émilie and filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, are French and all are Indigenous. “I come from a matriarchal line,” she says. “I wanted to rewrite a contemporary mythology and women are the ones telling the stories.”

Monnet is open about her appropriation of the tropes and attitudes she takes from European art history. Hers is a hybrid practice, so in one of her “Modern Tipis” series she will use Mondrian’s palette. She said, “As Indigenous people we were only allowed to express ourselves relatively recently, so we’re exploring artistic movements at a rapid rate and scale. There’s a lot of catching up to do and it is very interesting to see what these movements look like from an Indigenous perspective.”

Caroline Monnet, film stills, Creatura Dada, 2016, 4 minutes

There has been an evolution in the tone of her films. She is committed to the idea that “art is a way to deal with trauma and turn it around. I want to use it to break the cycle of victimization, of shame and brokenness. I want to be proud of my identity and use that pride to move forward.” In her early films, like the trilogy shot in 2010 (Warchild, Kwoni and Tashina) and Roberta, 2014, she was using a series of individual narratives to deal with loneliness, violence and substance abuse by facing it head on. In Gephyrophobia, 2012, the other film that will show at the Whitney, she uses a fear of bridges as a stand-in for a cultural reluctance to move from one psychological space to another.

Now the films are more hopeful, they employ humour and their visual style is more accessible. But Monnet is incapable of making a film that doesn’t show evidence of her signature style. In Tshiuetin, 2016, she made an 11-minute long film about the regional railway that stretches across 134 miles in Labrador and Northern Quebec. (The name means “north wind” in Innu.) The film is a telling example of how she will use the look of the film to make it her own; she has a discerning image sense when she is capturing landscape. One of the reasons why she films in black and white is because she regards the medium as having a special beauty and elegance. “It reminds me of old European cinema,” she says. So Tshiuetin moves from readable and conventional landscape details—including a shed that is decorated with the logo of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team—and then introduces images that are delicately abstract and atmospheric, more about light than land. In many ways Tshiuetin is an experimental film masquerading as a straightforward documentary.

Film stills, Gephyrophobia, 2012, NSI, 2:28 minutes.

Monnet likes to use layered images in her various art practices. It is consistent with her hybridity, but it is also a method of image making that recognizes the complex identity she brings to her art; she is a woman, she is French and Indigenous. Each of those layers is a place that asks her to conduct a subtle negotiation in time and space. In April of this year she had an exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary in Toronto called “A Whole Made of Many Parts.” The show consisted of a series of what she calls “Fragment” portraits, in which individually patterned masks were laid over the faces of chosen subjects, including herself. The exhibition title is its own kind of layering; in saying what it is, it also describes the identity of its maker. (The Whitney Biennial is on exhibition in New York until September 22 of this year.)

Volume 38, Number 2

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #150, published June 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.