On April 28th, 2006 I was honoured to attend an exhibit of works by Canada’s genre-defining First Nations master artist, Norval Morrisseau. It’s rather embarrassing to think that this was the first time our National Gallery had presented a solo exposition to a native artist – not just this native artist but any native artist – but it was.
If you aren’t familiar with the art of Norval Morrisseau give him a google. Once you’ve seen his flagrantly colourful and vibrantly striking cartoonish wide-eyed silhouettes you’ll forever be able to spot them from a mile away. Though Norval’s work influenced almost every native artist that has followed, his style is completely and utterly his own. I would say his work was impossible to copy but the famous profligation of Morrisseau fakes and forgeries that have flooded the art world would prove me wrong.
In the exhibit the walls were lined with one stunning work after another; my goodness there was so much colour. And while the aesthetic eye candy would have been more than enough to make the outing well worthwhile, for some reason I decided to pay the extra buck or two for the earpiece info recording thing* so I ended up getting much more out of it. For example, I remember being struck by a piece called The Gift in which Morrisseau depicted a white settler giving a blanket to a native family. The coming together of the two parties with their bodies morphing together through thick black lines on a soft yellow background held my eye and filled my senses, and then I clicked a button on my receiver and pressed it to my ear and learned that the decorative dots on the blanket represented small pox and other diseases that the intruders had purposely infected the blankets with in hopes that the native population would all be wiped out.
And so my view of the work was changed somewhat. In fact, the painting well represents exactly what went wrong when Europeans decided to move here. There was a chance back then – however unlikely – to co-operate in good faith with the First Nation people, to embrace and absorb their languages, art, and culture. Imagine if Canada had developed all these years with respect and understanding between all of us…our flag, our anthem, our language, our knowledge and respect for nature, our beliefs and values all influenced by the best the native cultures had to offer. I think we would all be stronger and prouder than we are now, and I think our country would be the envy of the world for far more and better reasons than we are now.
Back to the exhibit, before I let you go I must make special mention of an enormous masterpiece called Androgyny. A yellow, brown, and blue 10’ x 20’ explosion of shapes and colours that depicts every creature that walks, crawls, swims, or flies in this great land of ours, this piece alone was worth the price of admission. I was happy to see it again a few years later when I visited Rideau Hall to see the Stanley Cup. Apparently then-Governor-General Michaëlle Jean had arranged to have the piece moved to the GG Residence where it remains to this day, taking up the biggest wall in the building’s grand entranceway.
And while this honoured placement of one of Morrisseau’s great achievements is indicative of the growing prominence and acceptance of native art and culture in Canadian society we still have centuries of learning and growth to do. But I think we can do it, and with the right encouragement (like, for example, having our national galleries dedicate space to native culture) we will. Norval Morrisseau died a year after his exhibition at the National Gallery and I hope that he, with his lifetime of struggle and experience, saw in it the same spark that I, with my privileged naiveté, see.
*I don’t know why I resisted those things for so long, but I sure did. It must be related to that knee-jerk reaction many of us have when we’re somewhere strange and we don’t want to “look like a tourist” even though we are obviously tourists. And just like when I finally started taking advantage of tourist information booths and kiosks (which I had also steadfastly avoided for years), once I got over my enormously stupid hangup and instead made a habit of springing for the info earpieces my appreciation and overall experience of whatever it is I’m trying to appreciate and experience has gone up dramatically.