In Conversation: Caroline Monnet
by Anna Kovler
Since 2009 Caroline Monnet has been writing and directing films that centre on the strength and resilience of indigenous peoples in Canada. In her sculptural and installation work she uses materials like concrete, wood, arrows, copper and clothes to explore the complexity of indigenous identity from the vantage point of her urban position and lifestyle. Bringing ancient motifs and stories into contemporary visual form is a driving impetus in her practice, as well as capturing the complex and elusive nature of defining indigenous identity. Her current exhibition, A Whole Made of Many Parts, brings together traditional patterns with materials like plastic, wallpaper and digital animation, layering tradition with current experience. I spoke with Caroline to find out more about her process, films, and thoughts on the evolving reception of indigenous art in Canada.
Anna Kovler: In your current show at Arsenal in Toronto there are photographs of people with a see-through mask over their heads printed with a graphic pattern. Who are they and where is the pattern from?
Caroline Monnet: They are indigenous people in my surroundings in Montreal, intellectuals, artists, and scholars who have a strong influence in the indigenous community. They live in the city so for me it’s interesting to talk about the hybridity of being indigenous and being urban and how we deal with our cultures and traditions. The patterns are inspired by traditional indigenous patterns passed down to me by the matriarchs in my family. I make them on a computer first and I print them on plastic and sow it together to create the mask. It’s always interesting to me to look at traditions, something that is sacred and speaks to my indigenous heritage, and transpose that into something more contemporary to my urban lifestyle and reality.
The mask is about wearing your culture and your identity. I think that your traditions are always part of your psyche, and I see the mask as merging and morphing with their faces, their psyches. I feel society is often trying to put us into boxes, so I made the masks square. Institutions for example have to check boxes and include indigenous people. I also think the design looks like city maps or QR codes and alludes to the future.
AK: In your short Documentary film Tshiuetin (which translates as ‘north wind’ in Innu) you show the first railway in Canada to be owned and operated by a group of First Nations in Northern Quebec. What was it like to make this short documentary?
CM: It felt natural to make this documentary, and the CBC commissioned it, which was awesome. It’s important for me to talk about positive stories about indigenous people, countering the negative image that is portrayed in the media. By putting positive images out there I hope to break stereotypes or romaticization. It’s quite a long train ride. It takes thirteen hours to get there and thirteen hours to get back. It’s a survival train basically. It allows them to keep a connection to the land, and it’s cheaper for them to go buy food down south than buy food in the north, and they can teach their kids how to hunt and to be on the land. I felt like a bit of a stranger, because even though I’m Algonquin they speak their own languages.
AK: Why did you choose to shoot it in black and white?
CM: Black and white was a formal decision because it has this nostalgic feeling and grittiness. It was shot on a 16 mm Bolex. You can play a lot with texture in black and white, and with so much snow in that landscape it worked well. I also wanted it to be a little bit punk so it was important that the style had a rough quality to it. I didn’t want it to look like a news clip, but an art piece showcasing this community.
AK: I love the point of view in this film because it feels like the camera isn’t even there, it feels like nobody notices the camera filming them. Can you talk about how you chose the perspective?
CM: The camera embodies a sort of lurking presence on the train. There is something very iconic about the train and the idea of the long travel and long journey, so the camera is always there but not imposing on the people who are there. I was trying to capture an atmosphere rather than being active, even in the main part, the train conductor is always only shown from the back; he’s the face of the train but we can’t really identify him from the front, because he is meant to represent all the workers on the train, because it’s so much a team effort.
AK: Its been ten years since your short film Ikwé came out in 2009, a surreal dialogue between yourself and the moon or ancient spirit, how has your practice changed since then?
CM: It’s interesting that this film is still traveling a lot and it’s a testament to the emergence of indigenous cinema. It can be timeless, and still accurate today. It was my first artwork ever. It’s how I started, and it allowed me to continue being a filmmaker. Now, being an artist, I see the evolution in my work because I’m working on a feature film with bigger budgets, but it started with Ikwé, a small endeavor in my living room. I did it all myself, it’s super small budget and hand made, experimental. When you have a bigger budget you can start working with crew and directing actors and the film starts transforming and becoming more elaborate.
Also that film started off as personal and autobiographical and now I’m branching out into studying society rather than myself. When you’re an artist you can see your phases and as a young woman, it was a personal exploration at that time.
AK: have you noticed any major changes in the reception or representation of indigenous artists’ work in the last ten years?
CM: I think it’s changing for the better and it’s about time. Institutions are realizing the ways we can integrate indigenous voices into their programming and it’s an important voice to have in our society. As indigenous people we’ve been put aside for the last 400 years so it’s important that we become more present every year. And we’re not asking for that space, we’re just taking it. It’s an exciting time right now for indigenous artists and communities, and we’re staring to see people become allies in taking that space. For example, Isuma, the Inuit production company, does tremendous work up north cataloguing the elders. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, that was a first for an indigenous film, even for a Canadian film. They are pushing conventions and the discourse also, so it’s really great that Isuma is representing Canada in Venice. It shows the world that we exist, which a few years ago political leaders didn’t even recognize. That was only a few years ago, and now every Canadian knows that we can no longer pretend like it doesn’t exist and it’s not there.
Caroline Monnet’s exhibition A Whole Made of Many Parts is on view at Arsenal in Toronto from April 11 until June 8, 2019. Upcoming exhibitions include participation in the Whitney Biennale in New York City in May and the Toronto Biennale in September of 2019. Monnet is currently working on a feature film titled Bootlegger, which will be in production in the fall. Other future exhibitions will take place at the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto and Arsenal Contemporary New York in June 2019.