Hailing from Outaouais, Quebec, Caroline Monnet is a multidisciplinary artist whose work has garnered international exposure and acclaim. Monnet, who is of French and Algonquin ancestry, uses visual and media arts to explore complex ideas around Indigenous identity and bicultural living through the examination of cultural histories.
Having studied Sociology and Communication at the University of Ottawa and the University of Granada in Spain, she decided to pursue a career in visual arts and films. Her work has been programmed internationally at the Palais de Tokyo (Paris), Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), TIFF (CAN), Sundance (US), Aesthetica (UK), Palm Springs (USA), Cannes Film Festival, Museum of Contemporary Art (Montreal), Arsenal Contemporary NY, Axenéo7 (Gatineau), Walter Phillips Gallery (Banff), Division Gallery (Montreal) and the National Art Gallery (Ottawa).
This semester, Monnet comes to McGill as the inaugural Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence.
Promoting Indigenous scholarship and community building
The Artist in Residence program is one of the initiatives funded by the five-year US$1.25-million grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in June 2019 to support McGill’s Indigenous Studies and Community Engagement Initiative (ISCEI). The ISCEI promotes the growth of the Indigenous Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts, and aims to serve as a nexus for Indigenous scholarship and community-building and to facilitate communication and collaboration both across units at McGill, as well as in partnership with Indigenous communities.
This semester also marks the launch of the Mellon Indigenous Writer in Residence program, featuring Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, activist, musician, artist and author. We will feature Simpson in the Reporter in the coming days.
“This is the inaugural year for the new annual Mellon Indigenous Artist- and Writer-in-Residence programs supported by the grant,” says Jessica Coon, Associate Professor of Linguistics and Director of the ISCEI. “These programs bring creative professionals to McGill to share their expertise, engage with students and faculty members, and to increase knowledge of and exposure to Indigenous art and writing among the campus community and the general public. We are excited to be able to launch these programs despite the challenges of being online, and are so honoured that Caroline Monnet and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson will be joining our community this semester.”
We are thrilled that Caroline Monnet – a brilliant internationally acclaimed artist and filmmaker – will join us this semester,” says Mary Hunter, Chair of Art History and Communications. “By taking part in a variety of events with students and faculty, Monnet will share her knowledge of contemporary Indigenous art and film. We have much to learn from Monnet and her artworks, which explore the complexity of Indigenous identity. While there are many academics who are excellent teachers at McGill, learning from a practicing artist is a particularly special and engaging experience. We are incredibly fortunate that the Mellon has given us this opportunity.”
Prior to her beginning as Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence, Caroline Monnet spoke with the Reporter.
You are the inaugural ISCEI Artist in Residence. How important is it for McGill – and other institutions – to have initiatives like this?
It’s a tremendous honour to be invited to participate in this important residency. I was surprised at first by the initiative but also think it comes at a necessary time in today’s Quebec social context. Indigenous students continue to be underrepresented in Canadian higher education institutions and McGill seems to be committed to do its part to close this education gap, recognizing the urgency of this issue for the country and institutions like McGill.
I believe this type of initiative can be a transformative experience by expanding knowledge, nurturing critical thinking and inspiring new ideas, creativity and innovation. I think the main focus of creating residencies, similar to this one, is to engage in dialogue and sharing, which is always a stepping stone for more inclusion and understanding.
What do you hope to accomplish during your residency?
Residencies are always a good time for research and to focus on a specific project. The timing of this residency this semester is ideal, as students will be able to witness the evolution of my research and art production leading to the installation and presentation of an upcoming solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal next Spring. I will use the residency to advance my research, and work on new pieces for the show.
This is an interesting time for me to get feedback from staff and students as my project evolves, shifts and transforms. Opportunities like this are highly valuable because they allow me to dig deep into research, to discuss topics revolving around the exhibition and stimulate conversations. Overall, what really comes come to mind is the desire to share, build bridges and engage with students.
What different mediums do you work with? Do you have a preference or a facility for specific disciplines or mediums, or is it a question of you preferring a specific medium to express or explore specific subjects?
I am a strong believer that it is concept that dictates the medium I choose. Some things are better expressed under a sculptural form, while others are more appropriate when told with the medium of video and sound. It all depends on what it is that I want to talk about.
It comes quite instinctively in the early stages of the creative process. I have no intentions in choosing one medium over the other.
On the contrary, switching between mediums, techniques and disciplines keep me curious, invested and challenged. I have a high respect for artists that truly master their technique and work on it continuously. But in my case, the versatility of mediums allows me to be in a stage of exploration and experimentation both for myself and the work.
Over recent years, I’ve flirted with many different mediums but would say that I tend to be drawn back to installation, video and sculpture. I am currently finishing the postproduction of a feature film, so it feels natural that in my visual art practice I am less inclined to use video as a medium, but rather excited to work with materials in a sculptural context.
When exploring, I am not limited to what comes out of my research, but also how the research affects my rendition – meaning that I am not limiting myself to how the piece is made but also why the piece is made so that it extends outside of materiality and so that the narrative embedded in the work can come into play.
The multidisciplinary approach in my practice is also a way to simply adapt my skills to each project that comes my way. I appreciate being outside of my comfort zone, as I feel this is a place where one can learn and grow as an individual and as an artist.
You have French and Algonquin roots. How does your ancestry – both Indigenous and Colonial – inform your art?
Both Indigenous and Colonial inform my art since I come from both backgrounds. I grew up between Brittany and Outaouais, so it is obvious that this upbringing would also be reflected in the work I do. I cannot shy away from the fact that I am of a mixed ancestry. Both my French and Algonquin roots have been present from the very beginning of my art practice. I’ve explored the duality of my identity in many of my earlier works.
Through research and art, I have been able to connect deeper with my mom’s community, understand my family’s history, and learn about traditional craft making and the anishinaabemowin language. This is often paired with European references in history, art, cinema and literature that were taught to me during my education. My set of values are both Algonquin and French.
What are the stories you tell in your art? Are there recurring themes or overarching subject matter?
I studied sociology, so my work is often rooted in social interest. I’m interested in history and how that particular history, whether oral or factual, has had an impact across generations. I’m interested in how aggressive assimilation politics from the government has shaped Indigenous realities today. I’m also committed to bringing positive Indigenous representation on screen, showcasing strong Indigenous women and giving them as much space as possible so we can be seen, heard and listened to.
I talk about issues that are important to me. I believe that, as artists, we have the responsibility to spark dialogue and contribute to society. Just like sociologist, we are observers and respond to the world around us. I don’t want my work to be simply beautiful, I want it to contribute something to the larger debate, to be accessible to a large audience, but when you actually take the time to read and understand the work, you start picking up the messages and issues embedded in it. My practice is often rooted in research and carries multiple layers of meaning.
How much traditional symbolism and imagery do you incorporate into your work? Is there a lot of blending of traditional and contemporary in your art?
I’m inspired by history, traditional teachings and craft. I use that inspiration to inform a present and a future but that is always entwined with the past. However, I always adapt it to my urban contemporary reality by using tools that are readily available, that being technology and materials sourced at a local hardware store.
Have you always been drawn toward art? Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to be a full-time artist?
I’ve always been drawn to art, but I don’t come from an artistic family.
Being an artist wasn’t a career choice when I was growing up. The shift happened when I lived in Winnipeg for five years and started hanging out at places like Urban Shaman Contemporary Art Gallery. I was meeting all kinds of very interesting, vibrant people who were doing art and advocating for Indigenous inclusion on the broader art scene. It was an inspiring time. I made my first artwork, a short video titled Ikwé, in 2009, through the Winnipeg Film Group.
I discovered a way to express myself that felt gratifying at a time where I was quite introverted and shy. I soon realized that I was truly passionate about it and didn’t want to do anything else. I dropped everything else and dedicated all my time to writing, directing, painting and making art.
Do you have any mentors or people who inspired you to follow this path? Any other artists in your family?
My parents always encouraged me to follow my heart and my passion. I didn’t have any artistic models growing up, but my mother was always an avid consumer of art and culture. She was very curious about everything, and at a young age I was exposed to all kinds of different music from around the world. She also loved reading and watching movies. I think this has contributed to expanding my mind and opening my spirit to other ways of doing things. I’m pretty sure my avid curiosity comes from her.
At the early stages of my career, some artists and curators played a significant role in encouraging me to pursue my practice. Artist Nadia Myre is one of them, but also Kevin Lee Burton, Stefan St-Laurent, Jason Ryle and Danis Goulet.
Do you work on one project at a time or do you have several going at the same time? What projects are you working on at present?
I have multiple projects in the works. It’s hard for me to focus on only one project at a time. I find a lot of things inspiring, and I always have ideas that I want to explore.
Each project is different and they vary in length. Some take five years to complete, others can be finished within a month. It really depends on the nature of the project.
I am incredibly lucky and thankful to be able to work on projects that I am passionate about. I try to approach each project with the same level of professionalism, rigour and care.
Currently I am finishing old projects such as my first feature film. As well, I am diving into new ones, including two major solo exhibitions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Koffler Centre for the Arts in Toronto. I also have several side projects on the go, including a collaboration with choreographer Clara Furey and a multimedia installation for Nuit Blanche Toronto, curated by Dr. Julie Nagam.
Caroline Monnet will deliver a virtual lecture on January 28 at 4 pm. Learn more about the Artist Talk: Caroline Monnet event and register online.