ABSTRACT

The Big Four, an installation of four “junker” automobiles by Swampy Cree artist Kent Monkman, explores Indigenous people’s confinement in various settings—the reserve, the museum, the administrative borders of the state, and outdoor Wild West–inspired exhibitions that sidelined Indigenous people to stock anachronistic figurations. Commissioned by the Glenbow Museum for the centenary of the Calgary Stampede (an annual rodeo and outdoor exposition), The Big Four offers an unexpected reflection on the state policies, material scarcities, and civic attitudes that limit Indigenous people’s mobility. On each vehicle’s dashboard is a “res pass,” referencing the historical practice requiring Indigenous residents to obtain an Indian Agent’s permission to leave the reserve. The Big Four moves from historical to present-day examples of Indigenous people’s restricted mobility with one of its cars serving as a getaway vehicle for its driver who has just escaped from prison—an allusion to the disproportionately high rates of incarceration among Indigenous people in Canada. The desire for mobility against multiple forms of confinement emerges as a central theme of the installation, a tension seen in Monkman’s very choice of media: the inert “junker” vehicles appear not as moving cars but as stationary vignettes stuck in place within the museum. Yet, at the same time as The Big Four confronts its viewer with enduring colonial legacies of segregation and confinement, the automobiles signify more than worn-down clunkers. They tell a counternarrative of material innovation in the face of scarcity, of insistent circuits of travel, and of reimagined geographies that extend beyond the boundaries of state, province, and region.