The Art of Anishinaabe Artist Norval Morrisseau: Rebuilding His Legacy and His Fan Club

Carmen Robertson
Norval Morrisseau.
Norval Morrisseau. Photography by Graham Bezant/Toronto Sat via Getty Images.

I am an unabashed fan of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. Most people would characterize me as less of a fangirl and more of a scholar, but I have been smitten with the Mishomis of contemporary Indigenous art since the early 1980s and I have been fangirling ever since! Still, in this climate it is handy to be both
a fan and a scholar since Morrisseau’s legacy has been under siege, clouded by a market flooded with forgeries of his work. As a scholar I’m working with a group of other fan/scholars to ensure Morrisseau’s place in Canadian history.

As the creator of a new artistic movement within Indigenous contemporary art, Morrisseau challenged the Canadian art establishment to make space for Indigenous art, to make Canadians think about Indigenous aesthetics and inserted spirituality into an art market that in 1962 was consumed by abstraction. Since his first exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in downtown Toronto in September 1962, his radical innovations have had a profound influence on generations of Indigenous artists and art lovers. During his lifetime, Morrisseau was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art, awarded the Order of Canada, and given an honorary PhD by McMaster University. Yet, despite his undoubted significance in Canada’s history of art, not much has been written on Morrisseau’s life and art.

The twenty-first century has been, for the most part, a bumpy one for fans of Morrisseau’s art. Except for the 2006 Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), which clearly serves as the pinnacle of his career, public attention has most been focused on a series of negative media stories about court cases and forgeries. A documentary film that premiered in 2018 served up sobering details about forgery rings that leave followers of the artist’s work questioning whether art works are real or fake. All of this negative publicity has tainted his place in Canadian art.

In an effort to counter growing uncertainty around his legacy and to celebrate Morrisseau’s contributions to the history of art nationally and internationally, the Morrisseau Project 1955-1985 was born in 2018. The aim of this five-year project is to place the artist in his rightful place as one of Canada’s great artists. I lead a diverse group of scholars, curators, and members of the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society from across Canada in a comprehensive research project housed at Carleton University and funded by the Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council. The multifaceted project will bring together for the first time as many works as possible created by Morrisseau in the first thirty-year period of his art career so that an in-depth analysis of his significance can more fully assess his art.

By integrating reminiscences, interviews, and archival information by members of the Indigenous arts community about his inspirations, including Morrisseau’s experiences at Expo ’67 and his role within the Professional Native Indians Artist Inc. during the 1970s, we hope to gain a better understanding of his leadership role within this art movement.

While we know Morrisseau welcomed many people into his life who helped him as mentors, friends, and patrons, gathering stories and researching these connections will broaden understandings of how he navigated the art world when contemporary Indigenous art was not widely accepted.

Analyzing how story and visual storytelling informs his artistic language through consultation with Anishinaabeg community partners and team members will help reinforce concepts of relational understanding, reciprocity, and intergenerational knowledge transmission present in his art and in his life. Questions about where and how Morrisseau painted, which suppliers he used, how prints were made during this period of his career have not yet been answered. The team’s close analysis of his securely dated paintings and drawings, and his less-known work in other forms, will be connected with

thematic intersections between self-representation, politics, eroticism, and spirituality derived not only from Anishinaabe teachings but also from his exposure to Christianity and Eckankar. Only after doing this kind of work can we fully get Morrisseau’s artistic brilliance.

No less important than directly studying Morrisseau’s art is the team’s effort to more generally situate his art within the development of Indigenous art during the period, contextualized within dominant styles, and artistic movements in other regions in Canada. Questioning and documenting the ways of Morrisseau’s work was collected and placed in public art institutions will help to advance decolonizing efforts underway in Canada and beyond.

Clearly there is much to do in the coming years to ensure Norval Morrisseau’s rightful place in the history of art. Luckily, I’m not his only fan and because the Morrisseau fan club across Turtle Island and beyond is routing for him, things are bound to turn out right.

Carmen Robertson

Scots-Lakota scholar Carmen Robertson holds the Canada Research Chair in North American Indigenous Visual and Material Culture at Carleton University in Ottawa. She leads the Morrisseau Project: 1955-1985, working with a team of researchers to complete an exhaustive study of the art and life of Anishnaabe artist Norval Morrisseau.