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"These paintings only remind you that you're an Indian. Inside somewhere, we're all Indians. So now when I befriend you, I'm trying to get the best Indian, bring out that Indianness in you to make you think that everything is sacred." – Norval Morrisseau, 1996
"Few exhibits in Canadian history have touched off a greater immediate stir than Morrisseau's." – Time magazine, 1962
Kinsman Robinson Galleries enjoyed a long-standing and close relationship with Norval Morrisseau, C.M., LL.D., D.Litt., RCA, RSC (1931-2007). The gallery welcomed Norval Morrisseau to the stable in 1989 and hosted his comeback exhibition "The Shaman's Return", an event which wowed collectors and critics a year later. Kinsman Robinson's principals possess extensive experience and knowledge of Morrisseau’s art. Kinsman Robinson acted as Norval Morrisseau's primary gallery from 1989 until his death in 2007, so we’re well-versed in Morrisseau’s genuine paintings and their unique qualities. Kinsman Robinson specializes in Norval Morrisseau paintings of exceptional calibre and significance. Since 2008, Kinsman Robinson has consistently held biennial Norval Morrisseau retrospectives with accompanying full-colour catalogues.
Norval Morrisseau: Life & Work by Carmen Robertson, PhD
Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau worked outside the established traditions of European visual culture and on occasion used his art to make forceful political statements. He defied categorization and challenged conventional understandings of Indigenous art. Although the media judged him harshly for his alcoholism and his traditional beliefs, such as shamanism, Morrisseau succeeded in raising awareness of Indigenous aesthetics and cultural narratives as he developed an artistic vocabulary that inspired a new Canadian art movement.
Racial Politics and Art
When Norval Morrisseau arrived on the Canadian art scene in 1962, he was something of an anomaly. At a time when enforced assimilation was national policy and First Nations had only recently been accorded the right to vote in federal elections, few Indigenous people made art that was viewed as contemporary within the narrow framework accepted in mainstream cultural circles. Most Indigenous artworks were considered artifacts, better displayed in ethnographic museums.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the federal government had invested heavily in the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, and its director, James Houston (1921–2005), worked hard to market Inuit soapstone carvings, drawings, and prints as modern artistic expressions. Canadians were being primed to consider Indigenous arts as contemporary. The Canadian Guild of Crafts also supported Indigenous arts, but its shows were typically held in venues other than art galleries. Without government intervention, there appeared to be little appetite for Indigenous art in galleries in the early 1960s.
Morrisseau’s 1962 exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto therefore sparked a national news event, in part because of the artist’s racial identity and in part because he was creating contemporary art. Works like Moose Dream Legend, 1962, were hailed as both primitive and modern by critics at the time. Morrisseau’s work demonstrated clear links to the oral narrative traditions of the Anishinaabe in its process and its focus on animals and spirit beings, but also commented on how 150 years of the assimilationist policies of Canada’s Indian Act, which included residential schooling, had visibly erased Indigenous issues and understandings from Canadian public life. Curator Gerald McMaster has described Morrisseau as “a latter-day neoprimitivist” because modern art had rejected all referents to things old or expressly cultural while it celebrated primitivism as a universal muse to the modern.
Morrisseau’s entry onto the art scene can be best described as a rupture in Canadian art history. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the United States and inspired Native Americans to push for greater equality, and as Indigenous populations in Mexico advanced similar struggles, Canadian Indigenous peoples also organized and confronted government practices. In June 1969, the release of the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy (a document commonly known as the 1969 White Paper) by the Trudeau government in Ottawa triggered a series of political events. These resulted in the creation of the National Indian Brotherhood and regional factions that challenged the federal government to make changes to a system that was stacked against First Nations people. Artists joined forces, too, to change the racialized ways art was being exhibited in Canada.
In 1967, Indigenous artists were commissioned to create the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, a moment now considered pivotal in acknowledging activism and awareness of Indigenous issues in Canada, but Morrisseau left the project when the government officials organizing the exhibition deemed his mural design of bear cubs nursing from Mother Earth too controversial.
Morrisseau was part of a group called the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., which was established by Odawa artist Daphne Odjig (1919-2016) in Winnipeg in 1973 and labelled the Indian Group of Seven by the press. Other members included Jackson Beardy (1944–1984), Alex Janvier (b. 1935), Carl Ray (1943–1978), Eddy Cobiness (1933–1996), and Joseph Sanchez (b. 1948), and its purpose was to promote Indigenous arts and foster opportunities for emerging artists.
As early as 1972, anthropologist and artist Selwyn Dewdney (1909–1979) had tried to persuade the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa to add works by Morrisseau to its collection, but his effort was unsuccessful. At the time, the ethnographic Canadian Museum of Man, then in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of History, Hull, Quebec), was the Canadian institution that collected contemporary Indigenous art, whereas the National Gallery bought works by non-Indigenous Canadian artists. It had been more than thirty years since Dewdney’s initial request when the National Gallery of Canada purchased its first work by Norval Morrisseau. In 2006, the gallery then made him the subject of its first retrospective exhibition devoted entirely to an Indigenous artist. As art critic Paul Gessel, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, noted under the front-page headline “An Art Pioneer Makes His Final Breakthrough,” “Who would be the first Native artist to be given a show akin to the exhibitions granted such ‘white’ Canadian artists as Tom Thomson and Emily Carr? The consensus among the Aboriginal art community was that Norval Morrisseau...had to be the one.” This media coverage repositioned Morrisseau as a major Canadian artist, validated Indigenous art as contemporary, and helped end the practice of separating Indigenous from mainstream artists in public discourse.
Excerpted from Norval Morrisseau: Life & Work by Carmen Robertson (2016) published by the Art Canada Institute, www.aci-iac.ca. We gratefully acknowledge the ACI's permission to reproduce this material.
Carmen Robertson is a professor in the Visual Arts Department, Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance at the University of Regina. She is a specialist in contemporary Canadian Indigenous art history, visual culture, and colonial issues. A Lakota-Scottish scholar, she has long pursued and promoted the study of Indigenous arts and culture.
National Gallery of Canada; McMichael Canadian Art Collection; Royal Ontario Museum; Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; Detroit Institute of Arts; Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art; Tweed Museum of Art; Dennos Museum Center; Art Gallery of Ontario; Art Gallery of Mississauga; MacLaren Art Centre; Thunder Bay Art Gallery; Art Gallery of Algoma; Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre; Art Gallery of Windsor; Government of Ontario Art Collection; Indian & Northern Affairs Canada; Canada Council Art Bank; Canadian Museum of Civilization; Trent University; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; McCord Museum of Canadian History; Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec; Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery; MacKenzie Art Gallery; Glenbow Museum; Winnipeg Art Gallery; City Hall Collection; Etobicoke Board of Education; Toronto Star Collection; Hart House Collection; Robertson Art Center; The Ondaatje Corporation; Guardian Capital Group Ltd.; Procter And Gamble Inc.; lmperial Oil of Canada; Northern Telecom; Weir & Foulds; Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt; Montreal Trust Collection; Canadian lmperial Bank of Commerce; Noranda Mining And Exploration Inc.