Caroline Monnet’s Indigenous Worldbuilding

The past few years have been busy for multidisciplinary Anishinaabe, French and Canadian artist Caroline Monnet, from completing a feature film in 2021 to 11 exhibitions in 2023 — of which four were solo shows — to having her artwork featured on the cover of An Indigenous Present (2023), edited by artist Jeffrey Gibson. 

Clearly, the Montreal-based artist’s multifaceted practice is sparking interest. “I see the work of artists a bit like [that of] sociologists,” Monnet shared over Zoom from her Montreal studio. “I think our responsibility and our role is to respond to the world around us and offer new avenues for conversations.”

Monnet, who is self-trained, made her first film work, “IKWÉ,” in 2009. The short is an experimental “fiction-documentary,” as the artist calls it, about memory, oral traditions, and Indigenous knowledge systems. This work was one of many to follow that look at the hybridity of identity, her bi-cultural existence, and the unremitting impacts of colonization in North America. 

After writing and directing several films, Monnet grew both weary and wary of the passivity of the traditional film model — one where the audience has little to no engagement with the work beyond reaction. It was at this point that Monnet began exploring different avenues of activating and incorporating her film works into real and imagined environments such as “Like Ships in The Night” (2018), for which h she played with various readings of nature versus built environments. She describes her transition into different forms of media as organic, with certain mediums opening up into others: “I got more into video installation, and that got me into sculpture, and drew me to other types of work,” shared Monnet. “It kind of became a snowball effect.”

The transition from solely making films to be shown in festivals and theaters to installation- and object-making pushed Monnet to start thinking about space, physicality, and an element of immediacy that filmmaking doesn’t possess due to the time-consuming nature of the medium’s production. “Getting into sculpture was a way for me to work with a certain level of urgency and be able to experiment,” she told me. “I wanted to be a bit more involved physically, to work with my hands and work with materials.” Monnet has no intention of abandoning filmmaking, however. Having shown at some of the world’s most lauded festivals, including Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance, Palm Springs, and Cannes Film Festival, filmmaking is part of the artist’s DNA. “I don’t want to choose between cinema and the visual art,” she says. (Indeed, she’s working on another film as I write.)

The highly collaborative nature of Monnet’s career in filmmaking bleeds into her studio practice and exhibition-making. “There’s always a spot in the show where all the names of the collaborators that help make that show happen are listed,” said Monnet. She goes on to describe the nature of such joint efforts: “If I am making an architectural structure then I work with a consultant in architecture to make sure that it holds perfectly,” she says. “I really value collaborations for that. I know that I cannot do it all. I don’t have the specific skills for some of the things — but I do have the vision.” 

In Monnet’s sculptural projects, she creates aggregated works that combine visual legacies and vocabularies from her Anishinaabe and French heritages, popular culture, and the simple reductivity of Modernist abstraction. In her 2023 solo exhibition HOLDING UP THE SKY, at the Art Gallery of Burlington in Ontario, she employs motifs of Indigenous storytelling technologies like birchbark biting, a technique in which thin sheets of the bark are folded and pinched into patterns using one’s teeth. Monnet creates interpretations of these ancestral designs, which are often found on basketry, beadwork, and regalia, through a computer program. “I make them on the computer so I never make the same design twice — it becomes a language that evolves over time just as a [spoken] language would evolve, or society evolves.” 

The structures she makes help Monnet reclaim space and agency. “[The installation structures] were a way for me to speak about the housing crisis that a lot of Indigenous communities across North America are facing,” she told me. The geometric repetition of the works gives way to visual readings that recall maps, digital codes, and precise mark-making — situating the work both within long-running cultural practices and future realities. 

With more inclusion of Indigenous artists and makers in mainstream institutions, Monnet is cautiously optimistic. “I think in Canada we’re just a bit ahead [of the US] in terms of inclusion,” she told me. “I’m noticing the shift in the States — how they’re just starting to have an interest [in] and wanting to include Indigenous voices on all levels. North America has been built on our backs — it’s normal that we should get a place at the table.”

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