This week I was in Montreal, where I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill. While I was in town, I went to visit the Museum of Fine Arts.
There, I saw The King's Beavers by Kent Monkman, possibly the most disturbing and puzzling painting I have seen in a while. I stared at it for some time, the vividness of the image raising so many questions about its message.
In it, apparently Christian beavers are trapped and attacked by Europeans and Indians. Which king? Are these French beavers being killed by the English and their native allies, or loyal English beavers being butchered by the French?
We see Catholic priests evidently complicit in the massacre. Some beavers are trapped in a floating prison: are these slaves? Are the beavers African? Is this just a general allegory for the violence in all colonial encounters, or a parable on animal rights? (Beaver skin, after all, being a key item of trade in colonial North America). Were the beavers a persecuted minority from the Old World who had fled to the new? There are so many different ways of reading it, and perhaps that is the point.
The museum has hung this painting by the entrance to a gallery of art from colonial Canada, placing this modern piece alongside paintings from the eighteenth century, and the juxtaposition is striking (and deliberate). On researching further, I discovered that this piece is very new, having been completed this year for the museum.
I wonder what effect it has on visitors to the museum, that they are greeted with this allegory of frontier violence before they see the rest of the art in that gallery. I was unable to find any more detailed explanation by Monkman about his intended meaning of the work, and I would be interested to know if any readers have their own conclusions.