The artist and his art

Indigenous perspectives on the life and work of Norval Morrisseau

Norval Morrisseau, Androgyny, 1983, acrylic on canvas, 366 X 610 cm. Collection of the Indigenous Arts Collection, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. Gift of the artist to the people of Canada.

Norval Morrisseau’s art is instantly recognizable for its bold, black lines and saturated colours. While his name is familiar to many Canadians, little is known about the artist himself, and his work has usually been analyzed through a white, Eurocentric lens of art history and aesthetics. Carmen Robertson, Canada Research Chair in North American Indigenous Visual and Material Culture at Carleton University, and a member of SSHRC’s governing council, is working to reintroduce Morrisseau to the world from an Indigenous perspective.

A grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art

A member of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, Morrisseau created his own visual language, which formed the basis of the Woodland school of art. Throughout the 1960s, his work gained renown across Canada and internationally. It became so influential that he is often called the Mishomis (or “grandfather”) of contemporary Indigenous art.

“Despite that influence and reach, there have been few academic studies on Morrisseau,” says Robertson. “And none have truly sought to understand him or his work based on Indigenous ways of knowing.”

Robertson, who is of Scots-Lakota heritage, is using a SSHRC Insight Grant to study Morrisseau within the larger context of her Canada Research Chair work on Indigenous art theory. By taking a closer look at Morrisseau’s art, she, along with colleague Ruth Phillips and a large team of collaborators, is hoping to gain more insight into the abstract concepts and ideas inherent in Indigenous visual stories. The researchers are also aiming to provide a personal and cultural context for Morrisseau’s work, to help situate him in the Canadian art canon alongside other, more well-studied, artists.

Private collections hold hidden treasures

To do that, Robertson’s team is working with Indigenous scholars, Indigenous and non-Indigenous art curators, and institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada and the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society, to first put together a database of Morrisseau’s work. They are focusing on 1955 to 1985, when he was most prolific.

Robertson says the task has been challenging because much of Morrisseau’s work is in private collections and there are many suspected forgeries in circulation. But it has also been rewarding, as many of those collections have included never-before-seen correspondence between art dealers and Morrisseau.

“These letters offer a rare look at his own words and thoughts about his art,” says Robertson. “It’s fascinating to see how he advocated for himself and sought to steer his own career instead of following a path others had set out for him.”

Gaining access to private collections has also given Robertson and her team a chance to examine some of Morrisseau’s lesser-known works, including erotic pieces and those that explored his Two-Spirit identity. The breadth gives a fuller picture of how he represented himself and his culture.

Robertson’s research will also involve meeting with community Knowledge Keepers and others who knew and worked with Morrisseau. The work will ultimately lead to a comprehensive book and exhibition, presenting sides of the artist that most people have never before encountered. Robertson hopes it will make Morrisseau’s work accessible to more people and reshape how Canadians—and the global art world—think about Morrisseau and Indigenous art.

“Just as Morrisseau’s work inspired other artists, I hope my work inspires other researchers,” says Robertson. “I want it to be a foundation for them to explore new avenues of Indigenous art history and theory.”

Before the new book is published, you can read more of Carmen Robertson’s research on Norval Morrisseau and Indigenous art on Carleton University’s website and in Robertson’s other books, including Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau: Art and the Colonial Narrative in the Canadian Media.