BORN: near Beardmore, Ontario • 14 March 1932
Native and non-native Canadians have lived separate lives in the twentieth century. Technological and cultural differences between natives and newcomers made coexistence tricky at first, but governments that continually shunted aboriginals onto reserves made sure that natives would live this century mostly outside mainstream Canadian life.
The glaring cultural gap persists, but native painter Norval Morrisseau was the first to bridge it in a meaningful way. In so doing, he emerged as the catalyst behind a collective reassessment of native Canadian culture.The place between native and white societies has often been a lonely, troubling one for Morrisseau.
He was born on the Sand Point Reserve in northwestern Ontario to Ojibwa parents. His French name came from his grandfather, but Morrisseau was raised in a fashion typical for natives in mid-century Canada: formal education was intermittent, and exposure to cultural trends from the south almost non-existent.
His life was filled with the sort of poverty and despair common on reserves, and he battled a booze addiction than began when he was a child. What Toronto art dealer Jack Pollock saw when he “discovered” Morrisseau in 1962, therefore, was nothing short of stunning.
In the remote Ontario bush, Pollock found bold,colourful pictographs on birchbark and paper that made Ojibwa legends come alive. People and spirits commingled in Morrisseau’s drawings in a stark, unprecedented way.
The pictures were remarkable in themselves but were made more so because, for the first time, authentically native paint¬ ings were created that could be hung on walls: previously, native legends were executed on rock formations or everyday objects. Thus, Morrisseau’s vision was perfectly suited for a Western-style exhibition.
Pollock quickly arranged a Toronto showing for his new client, and the paintings were an overnight success. In a matter of days, the careers of both Morrisseau and Pollock were made. Suddenly the native artist who lived in a shack beside a garbage dump in Ontario’s far north was the toast of the urbane, white world of the south.
Not surprisingly, the ride from reserve to art exhibition was a bumpy one. Morrisseau was charting a new path and had to endure the celebrity that came with being famous: to white society, natives had long been respected craftmakers, but Ojibwa paintings that were chic were real news. Morrisseau coped by drinking away most of the money he made.
Later, he faced painful, humiliating denunciations from tribal elders, who decided his paintings denigrated native myths by putting them on public display. But Morrisseau continued to paint. His reputation as the best- known native painter was sealed in 1967 when his specially commissioned painting for Expo 67 in Montreal brought acclaim from a world audience.
This sort of success created a new interest in native society and culture in the rest of Canada. Morrisseau’s works pointed to the sophistication and distinctiveness of aboriginal nations. Other native artists copied him, and Morrisseau’s genre even acquired the prestige of its own name when he became known as the leader of the “Woodland” style.
Academic and political studies of native Canadians in the 1970s and 1980s reflected this change: more and more, “tribes” were viewed as “nations,” and a new respect for native society was evident. Prevailing assump¬ tions about the “primitiveness” of native culture seemed on the way out at last.
It is impossible, of course, to credit Morrisseau exclusively with all these developments. The years he spent in the 1970s and 1980s in a blurry alcoholic haze and his reluctance to assume any overtly political role make his connection to these changes an apparently tenuous one. Yet no other native had a similar profile in the arts community, and no one else engen¬ dered such sustained examination of the native myths and traditions he depicted.
Morrisseau has been widely criticized in recent years for not developing his style further, and his tentative examina¬ tion of mystical and Christian themes has been rejected by many. He doubtless is far less influential than he once was. History will remember him, however, as the most important single person in bringing Canadian native culture a measure of acceptance on its own terms.