Photography

Caroline Monnet: Reclaiming Space for the Indigenous Renaissance

Caroline Monnet, History Shall Speak For Itself, 2018.
Courtesy of the artist


Nearly a quarter of a century ago, in Douarnenez, France, home to roughly 15 thousand people, a young woman discovered the work of Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. Her documentary on the 1990 Oka Crisis, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, was being screened at the local film festival, which, since its inception in 1978, has been focused on showcasing the works of directors from marginalized communities. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 12 years old and I went with my sister. It was then that I realized that I wanted to be part of something bigger, to have a positive influence on society,” says multidisciplinary artist Caroline Monnet, who is part Algonquin, part Québécoise and part French.

Caroline Monnet
Photo courtesy of the NFB

Fast forward to today, where, as part of the 2018 edition of the CONTACT photography festival, a corner of the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto is adorned with a larger-than-life photographic collage by Monnet giving prominence to—amongst others—her early idol. The installation includes a carefully crafted, staged group portrait of six francophone Indigenous women working in film and based in Montreal. Aside from Obomsawin, Dominique Pétin, Swaneige Bers, Catherine Boivin, Emilie Monnet and Caroline Monnet appear in the picture. “I wanted to feature women from multiple generations that are embodying the Indigenous renaissance we are witnessing in Canada,” explains the mastermind responsible for it.

That they’re all francophone is no accident. Re-thinking Hugh MacLennan’s expression of the two solitudes, which he saw as the outcome of the lack of communication between French and English Canadians, Monnet talks of the existence of a double solitude experienced by French-speaking Indigenous people: “We are doubly marginalized. As Indigenous people in Canada, we’re already a minority. And then, within the Indigenous community, which is for the most part Anglophone, we also find ourselves at a disadvantage. We’re not fully part of the Québécois/Canadian society, and it’s also hard to communicate with other First Nations outside of the province, to network, to access funding, to feel supported.”

Hence, showcasing individuals from this group at a film centre that occupies an entire block in the heart of the city is a unique opportunity to make a bold, unavoidable statement about the Indigenous presence in Canada. Since, as Monnet notes, Native women are the most marginalized coast to coast—the number and general lack of attention given to the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ2S should be evidence enough—she “wanted to celebrate them in the most elegant and fun way, to treat them as the royalty that they are, and to have them take as much space as possible because that’s exactly what has been taken away from us for so many generations.”

This is far from the first time that Monnet strived to recognize the contribution, wisdom and power of her peers and predecessors. An autobiographical piece as well as a creative manifesto, her earliest experimental short Ikwé, named for the Algonquin word for woman and produced in 2009, envisions the moon as her grandmother and the bearer of important teachings. “If the moon affects the tides, the seas, the waters, and we’re composed of up to 75% water, then she most likely also has sway over our moods and emotions. But, maybe because of the strength of urban lights, we’ve lost sight of that,” she says.

In the video, the moon, speaking in Cree, admonishes the young woman to listen to what is calling her and to care for her role as water keeper and giver of life, while Monnet’s voice, in French, reflects on the importance of listening to her grandmothers, on how the collective memory of her ancestors is glued to her being. Then in her early twenties, she sought to reconnect with a heritage that had long been abnegated in her family. Her mother was from Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec and her father from France. Poetically, she observes that “the chaos of history” deprived her Indigenous relatives of a sense of pride in their identity, as well as their connection to land, language and culture. At a time when the government adopted aggressive assimilation rhetoric and pursued equally violent policies, her grandparents moved away from the reserve for work purposes and believing that their children would access a better education that way. As a result, neither she nor her mother learned to speak Algonquin. And their Indigenous roots were seldom talked about. Still, like many of her generation, Monnet wants to break away from feelings of shame to reaffirm the beauty and the importance of the culture that bore her.

Caroline Monnet, History Shall Speak For Itself, 2018.
Courtesy of the artist


“Growing up between France and Quebec, attending a French lycée meant that French culture was a big part of my upbringing and education,” remarks Monnet. “On the other hand, the Indigenous side of my identity was always a bit taboo. Yet, if I wanted to be able to be proud of myself, I needed to be able to celebrate all that I am, not just half of it. Making art became a way for me to explore, express and reaffirm a part of myself, to gain self-confidence.”

From then on, she experimented with different media, teaching herself how to manipulate and subvert them through Google or speaking with practitioners who could guide her. Having studied sociology and communication at the University of Ottawa and the University of Granada, her projects usually start with research. In fact, the resulting pieces are, in essence, the creative expression of her findings. “When I did the Carte Blanche for the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal in 2016, I had no theme, no direction, no guidelines. It was great and freeing, but also paralyzing. I had a creative block, so I started wondering about what had no rules. That’s how I got to the Dada movement, which rejected exactly that, rules, logic, rationality.” The outcome was Creatura Dada, a phantasmagoric clip where six Indigenous women enjoy a regal meal.

That gathering inspired History Shall Speak for Itself, the photographic collage that encourages Torontonians passing along King Street to confront the narratives they carry about Indigenous people, and Indigenous women in particular. Hoping to break away from media representations that depict them as victims of poverty, abuse and violence, while also highlighting the Indigenous renaissance currently in motion in Canada and around the world, Monnet moved from the Dada ethos to that of the Renaissance. Her investigation into the era did not merely look at its dignified artistic expression; it also considered what societal shifts were in play at the time. “The whole spirit behind the Renaissance was to break away from old rules to create new ones. How cool is that from an Indigenous perspective? Isn’t that what we’re doing now? Aren’t we saying enough with the past, let us show you how we’re going to do it next?” she muses.

Taking cues from the paintings of the time and contemporary high-fashion imagery, she styled and staged the six women in a stately way, replacing some European symbols of power and stature with Indigenous ones. “What if we were to mix the two cultures, but from a Native perspective? Thinking about cultural appropriation, why couldn’t we appropriate some European elements in our work? And what would that look like?” she further wondered. Her answers rest in the image. Costumes created by Swaneige Bertrand fuse Indigenous patterns and materials with European silhouettes. A 17th century royal scepter becomes a lacrosse stick. Serious poses are infused with a touch of humour.

Monnet borrowed from an idea she introduced in her 2014 Light Experiment project, for which she printed bands of found images onto acetate and then shone a light through them to create a new single image. The photograph was then split into strips interspersed with bands from images sourced in the National Film Board of Canada’s archive. “Those films were made by non-Indigenous people documenting Indigenous people from an outsider lens. It’s interesting for Indigenous individuals. There are some telling differences between the two. In the NFB footage, the people are often looking away from the camera, whereas in the picture I created, the women are staring straight into it. They’re active, they’re present, they’re participating in the conversation. Still, it was important to include women of the past, because they made where we are today,” Monnet explains.

The Lightbox is not the only place where her work will be seen over the spring. The Montreal-based artist is also participating in the Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art’s Resilience project curated by Lee-Ann Martin, which places the work of 50 Indigenous women artists on 167 billboards across the country. “It’s an honour to be included amongst so many talented and incredibly smart women across Canada. It goes back to our need to take as much space as possible, to be present large-scale, to be heard and seen. I often think about how aggressive the Indian Act was towards Indigenous women in particular. My mother lost the right to claim her Indigenous identity the day she married my father. All these things are constantly on my mind because they don’t make sense,” reflects Monnet. Her contribution is a piece that combines abstract patterns that were passed down to her by her mother-in-law before she passed away, with typography that plays on the word “Deluxe,” itself chosen to highlight the sumptuousness of traditional patterns. The stated intent: “to create a subliminal message that speaks to the hierarchical structure of our society.”

If Monnet’s practice is diverse in medium and form, it remains coherent in its messaging. There is no single way to give life to the consequences of the historical and contemporary entanglements of Indigenous and Canadian identities. To see her work on the side of theLightbox is also an invitation to unwind the oeuvre she’s weaving.

Laurence Butet-Roch is an independent photo editor, writer, photographer and a member of the Boreal Collective. She is a frequent contributor to the British Journal of Photography, TIME Lightbox and Polka Magazine. She lives and works in Toronto, Canada.

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