By Rick Garrick
THUNDER BAY – The significance of Norval Morrisseau’s art is still not fully recognized in Canada even though his work has been celebrated around the world.
“They talk about Cubism as being a new visual language, but what Morrisseau created here in Canada is every bit as important as a new visual language,” says Carmen Robertson, a Lakota art historian from the University of Regina who is currently working on two books about Morrisseau’s work. “Some people seem to dismiss the Woodland school by saying Woodland artists are doing the same as Morrisseau, but no, that happens to artists all around the world. A movement occurs and artists want to use those ideas in their art — it’s not the same art being produced. I think it comes down to racist ideas still; we can’t seem to get past that in this country.”
One person attending Robertson’s July 4 presentation at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery even questioned Morrisseau’s use of alcohol.
“Sadly, a lot of people focus on the negative aspects of his life rather than the power of his art and that visual language,” Robertson says. “He’s not the first artist who was an alcoholic, that’s for sure, but that is one of those labels that is always connected to Morrisseau.”
Robertson wants more Canadians studying and discussing the work of Canada’s Indigenous artists.
“I do see a little bit of Indigenous art now sneaking into mainstream curriculum from K-12,” Robertson says. “But I think we have to be a lot more diligent in getting those ideas out there, (not only) for Indigenous students but for all Canadians. It’s everybody’s responsibility to know this amazing art that is being produced in Canada, but somehow never really gets talked about much.”
Lakehead University professor Laura Buker always introduces her professional education students to Morrisseau’s art every year.
“He was a powerful storyteller and that opens a whole other world for these new teachers to see how not only Norval’s work is genius, but it also opens another door to see what Woodlands artists are painting,” Buker says. “We have our own Group of Seven indigenous artists in Canada, but now the younger artists are coming along and it is very exciting.”
Former Ecole Gron Morgan principal Denise Baxter says First Nations youth are “poised and ready to take the world by the tail.”
“I think a big part of that has been the fact we are now, very much in every grade, bringing First Nations, Metis and Inuit culture on a deeper level into the classroom,” says the Marten Falls First Nation citizen. “So kids from all cultures are learning about our First Nations history and current realities and thinking about where do we go next.”
Robertson encourages people to check out Morrisseau’s art whenever possible.
“The great thing about Thunder Bay is, unlike other areas of Canada, there is such a rich selection of Woodlands art and especially Morrisseau’s art,” Robertson says. “Some of the best he produced is here in Thunder Bay.”