Contemporary Queer Indigenous Painting: Femmes and Land

Rebecca Casalino

This paper focuses on the painting practice of T’karonto-based artist Natalie King. The author,  Italian-Canadian settler Rebecca Casalino, includes the work of King’s Indigiqueer peers Chief  Lady Bird and Kent Monkman to emphasize contemporary artistic practices and strategies that highlight Indigenous joy and desire. Casalino also introduces thinking by Indigenous women  scholars Lee Maracle and Nancy Marie Mithlo to explore themes of land, food, knowledge  reclamation and self-representation. In this paper King’s painting practice is supported by the  work of Indian critical theorist Homi Bhabha, who dissects stereotypes and discrimination within  colonial discourse. King’s painted figures reflect her community and reject violent colonial  stereotypes which promote damage-centred narratives furthering “Canadian” settler mythologies.  King's large scale paintings immerse viewers in Indigenous knowledge by presenting living  loving Indigenous people dressed in vibrant regalia happily surrounded by food and flora.

Key Terms: Contemporary art, Queer art, Indigiqueer, femme, colonialism,
Western feminism

The issue of land and self-determination for Indigenous nations remains at the forefront of the push for sovereignty. As the Land Back movement grows both culturally and politically, it is reflected in the practices of Indigenous artists and creatives (NDN). Natalie King is a queer Anishinabe femme1 who uses colourful stylized figurative painting to represent the folks in her community. King is currently based in T’karonto—on the traditional territories of Huron-Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation—as a practicing artist, facilitator and member of Timiskaming First Nation. People of the Timiskaming Nation are called the Saugeen Anishnabeg, which in Algonquin means “People of the River mouth” with the Blanche and Quinze Rivers feeding into Lake Timiskaming. The Timiskaming reserve was established by the government of “Canada” in 1851. Originally 110,000 acres, it has been eroded down by settler-invaders to 5000 acres according to Timiskaming First Nation’s records.2

Pre-contact with Europeans, Indigenous women of Turtle Island were in charge of harvesting food for their families and community. Lee Maracle, an Indigenous woman author, mentor, and teacher from Sto:Loh Nation, noted that “[i]t was incumbent upon women to acquire the knowledge of this food, the amount required; planning the preservation, distribution, and consumption of the food fell within their direct authority.”3 Maracle addresses the theft of Indigenous lands and the consequences for communities, underpinning that “[t]he loss of this authority is directly connected to the loss of male jurisdiction over our national territory, their historic loss of authority to protect it, and the loss of our mothers' right to raise us.”4 The wellness of children was directly linked to being well-fed in Indigenous cultures. Well-fed children led to well-behaved children and this connection “remained unbroken until residential school, compulsory education, and the outlawing of our cultural practices destroyed the family, clan, and political power structures necessary to pass on this knowledge.”5 Maracle continues in her writing about Native women’s issues with a call
to action: 
We must gather ourselves together as women; reclaim our sociological knowledge, our medical knowledge, our right to determine the health standards of our nations and exercise our authority; acknowledge one another, challenge men to make real their commitment to the matriarchal and colineal societies of the past.6 

Women within these communities held power through their self-determination in planting and harvesting food on the land. To reclaim this power is to reinforce past matriarchal (and colineal) ways of living, and return to a balance within Indigenous communities between all genders. Patriarchal structures, from land rights to household hierarchies, continue to be enforced through colonial practices and systems of “Canadian” society, creating systemic imbalance within Indigenous communities. 

King rejects patriarchal constructions through the imagery in her figurative works, presenting “queer femmes . . . [and] . . . embracing the ambiguity and multiplicities of identity within the Indigenous queer femme experience,”7 allowing women and femmes to occupy multiple roles and spaces outside of stereotypical sexist and racist imaginations. This works not only to de-mystify the lives of contemporary Indigiqueers8 for settler audiences, but also to untangle internalized racist and sexist beliefs for Indigenous viewers by presenting positive nuanced representations. Her work highlights femme’s identities, which is a more inclusive lens of the ‘feminine’ rather than strict colonial binary understandings of ‘womanhood.’ Maracle writes about Native women who are “die hard feminists, Western style,” and addressed the limitations of this feminism for Indigenous folks stating that “the feminist response is power-suicide for most Native women.”9 King’s focus on femme subjects and Indigiqueers is a rejection of white, trans-exclusionary radial feminism (TERF) which upholds colonial heriarchies of gender and race. 

King’s artistic labour is invested in creating joyous paintings that represent her community and work to address the racist and sexist stereotypes Nancy Marie Mithlo coined “[the] Red Man’s Burden.”10 Mithlo, a Chiricahua Apache scholar of race and representation, writes that a “re active stance, while meaningful and just in its cause, does not allow for alternative proactive strategies of naming and self-expression.”11 King’s paintings, taking a proactive stance, explore methods of stylization through the lens of her Indigiqueer experience. She discusses the intentionality of queer Indigenous self-representation in her painting practice, writing: 
I make this work especially for my queer Indigenous kin in mind. I make work that I wish I had access to as I was growing up and coming to understand and inhabit my identities, and I know this sentiment is shared often, but I don’t think people fully understand how important this is, how impactful this can be for the spirit.12

King’s bold paintings vibrate with colour and activity as her energetic subjects are surrounded by wild life. Her work is joyful as a counterbalance to “damage-centered narratives that are tied to Indigenous communities and the conspicuous consumption of queer Indigenized trauma,” by presenting queer love and empowered femme bodies.13 Her 2020 painting Thunderbird Mama presents an Indigenous femme with a geometricly stylized Thunderbird tattooed below her sternum. The figure kneels as her full and shining body extends to the edges of the canvas on a deep blue background. She tucks the Earth safely into her mass of black curls, holding the planet in her manicured hand with long square-tipped pink nails. Strawberries and flowers grow in her hair and diamond shaped sparkles are scattered across the composition like stars. Strawberries, or o-day'-min in Ojibwe, “are known to our people as heart berries,”14 as explained by Elder Lillian Pitawanakwat of the Thunderbird clan, born in Whitefish River First Nation.15 Mohawk Elder Jan Longboat explains that the strawberry is a representation of konnonronhkwa, translated to English from Mohawk as “I show you I care” or “I love you” in Indigenous cultures.16 Strawberries, or hearts, also decorate the bralette of Thunderbird Mama, framed by red polka dots and delicate lace edging. Her shining red lips match the surrounding strawberries in hue and two pink hearts decorate her cheeks as a loving and playful blush. King titles this painting Thunderbird Mama, creating a direct link to femme Indigenous knowledges of the land, food and child rearing, and the love that is inherent in each of these aspects of Indigenous culture. King’s focus on love shines through in her paintings through vibrant colour choices, depictions of folks from her community whom she loves, and the incorporation of Indgienous symbols and culture into her work.

King’s paintings feature femmes surrounded by flora and food in reference to women and femmes' social, political and spiritual roles within their communities. The connection between cultural practices surrounding food, child-rearing and Indigenous land rights becomes obvious when viewed from the perspective of Native women and femmes. Women hold jurisdiction over household and community eating habits and because of their inherited knowledge, passed along matriarchal lines. Femmes know to eat “seasonally, in accordance with the rhythms of the Earth, careful to preserve what was not available to us all year-round in a way that was the least intrusive possible upon the natural rhythms of the Earth.”17 King presents these knowledges through the imagery surrounding her figurative practice. Through her colourful and affective compositions, King states that she is “trying to get the viewer to entangle themselves in the project of colonialism, through a queer lens that is focused on joy and pleasure,”18 and present corn, strawberries and greenery intermingled with queer and femme bodies to connect Indigenous bodies with Indigenous knowledge for viewers. Her painting thru fields of corn and flowers I touched the sun (2020) features an Indigenous femme with deep tawny skin tone and black curly hair, pinned back with matching sets of pink barettes. King surrounds the figure in a field of contrasting bright yellow corn and purple flowers. A neon pink-orange vibrates across the body of the femme, as the ruffles of her dress extend into an orb balanced on her shoulder. The same colour dances across the composition in the form of bright, pink-orange, diamond sparkles. The image is joyous and jubilant as the femme blushes at viewers; her wide, almond-shaped brown eyes are framed with thick lashes and blue eyeshadow looking directly and unabashedly at the audience. 

The incorporation of Indigenous foods into the work of Indigenous queer femmes is not unsual. Works like Love Your Indigenous Foods Love Your Indigenous Lands Love Your Indigenous Self (2019) by Chief Lady Bird, a queer Potawatomi and Chippewa artist based in Mnjikaning Rama First Nation, also highlight the connection between Indigenous bodies, land and food. Love Your Indigenous Foods Love Your Indigenous Lands Love Your Indigenous Self presents an image of Chief Lady Bird—captured by photographer Olivya Leblanc—biting into a piece of pickerl with illustrative lines outlining her form. Three Woodlands style black, yellow, and red fish swim through the composition. Differing in mediums and aesthetics, these femme Indigiqueer artists emphasize food and traditional knowledges with great pride in their artworks. By reclaiming knowledge and representing their community through artworks, Native women and femmes break a cycle of false information, racist, and sexist stereotypes circulated by settler artists and creatives. Indian author Homi Bhabha speaks about this phenomenon of colonization writing that “[t]he fetish or stereotype gives access to an 'identity' which is predicated as much on mastery and pleasure as it is on anxiety and defence, for it is a form of multiple and contradictory belief in its recognition of difference and disavowal of it,” which is reflected in the now infamous work of Sam Durant.19 His work titled Scaffold (2012) includes a recreation of the gallows where the Dakota Thirty-Eight were murdered on December 26th 1862.20 Insensitive appropriative works like this erase the living bodies of Indigenous people, highlight the painful deaths of Indigenous peoples, and reduce representation of Indigenous people to violent deaths at the hands of colonizers. 

The term femme also includes memebers of the the Two-Spirit community who self identify as femme, or feminine. Two-Spirit artist Kent Monkman, a member of Fisher River Cree Nation, revamps Western European and American art historical paintings through the lens of his own experience. Deeply invested in humour, Monkman uses the classical style and imagery of grandmaster paintings to insert Indigenous bodies into art history with a witty twist. He often portrays himself in his paintings as his drag persona “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle,” highlighting Indigiqueer presences through images of desire, lust and deviancy. His painting Lost Love (2020) shows Miss Chief running naked with a Canadian Mountie dressed in the classic red jacket. Miss Chief is nude but for two dreamcatchers fastened together to make a bra (with rainbow feathers adorning its fringe) and her red-soled Louboutin heels. The contrast created by a naked crying Miss Chief and the Mountie in uniform create a scandalous scene of forbidden love, capturing queer cross-racial desire within colonized territoires. Monkman’s flipping of colonial depictions of Indigenous people in traditional historical paintings rejects the “processes of subjectification made possible through stereotypical discourse.”21 Comparing Monkman’s classical paintings to King’s highly stylized works expands the possibilities of Indigenous self-representation within the arts. Monkman’s classical realist painting skill is notable within his practice but his subjects and narratives add fascinating twists to his work that captivates viewers. In contrast, King uses her painting style to further queer the medium of painting, rejecting colonial standards of realism or naturalism. Her flat backgrounds create vibrant backdrops for her figures and shift viewers into a space of imagination. Work by Indigenous femmes such as Monkman, Chief Lady Bird, and King work to counter colonialism's brutal narratives by presenting living, loving and well-fed Indigenous people in their practices. 

Bhabah writes about colonial clichés saying that ambivalence fuels stereotypes and “ensures its repeatability in changing historical and discursive conjunctures… informs its strategies of individuation and marginalization… [and] produces that effect of probabilistic truth and predictability.”22 The clutter created by hundreds of years of colonial discourse distracts from nuanced and complicated truths of identity and positionality within both settler and Indigenous communities. King does not approach her practice with ambivalence but with a strong sense of purpose and identity. Her work Land Back Baby (2020) delivers a clear message from an apologetically Indigenous perspective. Her subject squats and looks over their shoulder to stick their tongue out and flash the ‘I love you’ sign in American Sign Language (ASL). They are wearing all pink; decked in a hot pink cowboy hat, light pink, heart-shaped earrings that dangle to their shoulders, and a skirt with pink tufts of fur running in bands across their back, the figure’s big brown eyes are highlighted with pink eyeshadow and thick black lashes. Their hair is in pigtails wiggling down the composition in stylized braids. Red strawberries and the white strawberry blooms dance around the painting vibrating on the flat, bright, melon-green background. The Indigiqueer subject in Land Back Baby has a heart outline tattooed on their shoulder with LAND BACK written inside. Regalia and tattoos within King’s paintings serve to promote visibility of Indigiqueer knowledge. Speaking to perspectives on representation, King explained that, “[she likes] the idea of queering ideas of self-presentation and regalia, the ways in which we present ourselves and the communities we are from.”23 King presents folks from within her community who are tattooed and wear Indigenous-made regalia to celebrate the ways that culture is attached to their bodies and throughout daily life. King’s practice meets at the intersection of Indigeneity, queerness and femininity. These artworks combat “[r]acism and sexism [which] are cultural beliefs that invade all aspects of our perception of ourselves.”24

King’s figurative paintings seek to bring attention to the joy of being Indigiqueer by presenting nuanced and personal depictions of her community. The love present in each of these works can be deciphered through King’s inclusion of symbols such as strawberries, and is also evident in her aesthetic and thematic choices. Queers wearing chunky heels, big bright earrings and proudly wearing their regalia are joyfully affective to both settler and Indigenous audiences viewing her vibrant works. Her practice captures the “realities of lived lives through frameworks of desire and survivance,” highlighting thriving Indigenous bodies on the land to promote the resurgence of Indigenous culture and knowledge.25 The work of Indigenous women and femmes fuels movements towards a self-determined future where children are well-fed and cared for by their communities and the land is returned to its rightful caretakers. 


1. A term in queer communities to refer to cis queer women, trans women, trans-feminine people, and feminine non-binary folks, including members of the Two-Spirit community. It is intentionally fluid and may not apply to all women, or feminine queers. It has roots in lesbian communities: femme/futch/butch.

2. “Welcome,” Timiskaming First Nation, accessed October 10, 2022. https://

3. Lee Maracle, “Decolonizing
Native Women,” in Daughters of Mother Earth:
The Wisdom of Native American Women,
ed. Barbara Alice Mann (Westport: Praeger Publishers Inc, 2006), 43.

4. Maracle, 44.

5. Maracle, 44.

6. Maracle, 46.

7. Natalie King, “About,” accessed
Oct. 4, 2002, https://www.natalielauraking. com/about

8. A term coined by Two-Spirit artist T.J. Cuthand, member of Little Pine First Nation. (See “Curation as Decolonial Practice” below).

9. Maracle, 31, 36.

10. Nancy Marie Mithlo,
“Reappropriating Redskins Pellerossasogna (Red Skin Dream) Shelley Niro at the 50th La Biennale di Venezia,” Visual Anthropology Review 20, no. 2 (2004): 25.

11. Mithlo, 25.

12. Natalie King, “Painting,”
accessed March 27th 2021, https://www.

13. “Interview: Natalie King,” What We Like, accessed Oct 5, 2022, https://

14. “Strawberry Teachings,” Illinois University Housing, accessed March 29th 2021, Dining-Events/strawberry.

15. Dianne Meili, “Lillian Pitawanakwat [ footprints].” Windspeaker 29, issue4(2011),accessedMarch29th2021,
windspeaker/ lillian-pitawanakwat-footprints

16. See note 14 above.

17. Maracle, 41.

18. “Interview: Natalie King.”

19. Homi Bhabha, “The Other Question,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 2004), 75

20. Candice Hopkins, “The Appropriation Debates (or the Gallows of History),” in Saturation: Race, Art, and the Circulation of Value, edited by C. Riley Snorton and Hentyle Yapp, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2020), 86

21. Bhabha, 67

22. Bhabha, 66

23. “Interview: Natalie King.”

24. Maracle, 36

25. Natalie King, “About”


Bhabha, Homi. “The Other Question.” In The Location of Culture, 66- 84. London: Routledge, 2004.

Chief Lady Bird and Olivya Leblanc. “Love Your Indigenous Foods Love Your Indigenous Lands Love Your Indigenous Self ” Xpace Cultural Centre. Accessed March 30th 2021. https://www.xpace. info/exhibition-event/chief-lady bird-love- your-indigenous-foods-love-your-indige- nous-lands-love-your-indigenous-self/

Cuthand, Thirza Jean, Howard Adler,
and Niki Little. “Curation as Decolonial Practice.” Panel presented by Toronto Film and Media Seminar, Online, January 29th, 2021.

Hopkins, Candice. “The Appropriation Debates (or the Gallows of History).” In Saturation: Race, Art, and the Circulation of Value. Edited by C. Riley Snorton and Hentyle Yapp, 83-96. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2020.

“Interview: Natalie King.” What We Like. Accessed Oct 5, 2022. https://www.

King, Natalie. “Bio.” natalielauraking. com. Accessed Oct. 4, 2022. https://www.

King, Natalie. “Painting.” natalielaurak-

Maracle, Lee. “Decolonizing Native Women.” In Daughters of Mother Earth: The Wisdom of Native American Women, edited Barbara Alice Mann, 29-51. Westport: Praeger Publishers Inc, 2006.

Meili, Dianne. “Lillian Pitawanakwat [ footprints].” Windspeaker 29,
issue 4 (2011). Accessed March
29th 2021. https://www.ammsa. com/publications/windspeaker/ lillian-pitawanakwat-footprints

Mithlo, Nancy Marie. “Reappropriating Redskins Pellerossasogna (Red Skin Dream) Shelley Niro at the 50th La Biennale di Venezia.” Visual Anthropology Review 20, no. 2 (2004): 22-35.

“Strawberry Teachings.” Illinois University Housing. Accessed March 29th 2021. https:// strawberry

“Welcome.” Timiskaming First Nation. Accessed October 10, 2022. tfnadmin