By Lloyd Dolha
He has been described as perhaps the greatest native artist who ever lived – a primal visionary who gave form to the Ojibway legends and myths told to him by his maternal grandfather Moses “Potaon” Nanakangos.
He is Norval Morrisseau, an Ansishnaabe artist of national and international renown; the first aboriginal artist to receive a retrospective of his life’s work in the exhibit Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, which runs from February 3 to April 30, in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Canada.
The solo exhibition contains 59 works of Morrisseau covering the 1958 to 2002 period of his life. It is viewed by many as an end to the institutional discrimination of First Nations artists by the country’s foremost bastion of Canadian art.
The exhibit features drawings, painted objects and paintings that document Morrisseau’s progression as an artist in a unique style that came to be known as “Woodland” or “legend” painting, which the artist is credited for founding as a school of form.
While the national gallery’s reluctance to embrace Morrisseau’s work is unfortunate, even distasteful, it is perhaps understandable and even forgivable.
Morisseau’s life as an artist was marked by alcoholism, drug use, forays into homosexuality and a brief flirtation with organized crime in the 1970s.
He was often destitute and occasionally on the wrong side of the law. It has been said that in Toronto he was often seen in the company of young men and in Vancouver, he traded his art for bottles of booze.
In 1957, at the age of 26, Morrisseau contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium at Fort William, where he claims he had a number of visions and dreams calling him to be a shaman/artist.
The astral plane or what Morrisseau calls the “House of Invention” is the source of his luminous, totemic art.
In works that evoke ancient symbolic etchings on sacred birchbark and pictographic renderings of spiritual creatures, Morrisseau reveals the souls of humans and animals through his use of “ex-ray” style of imaging skeletal and internal organs of the subjects he portrays.
The landmark exhibition is probably the last great tribute to a master of his form and unique contribution to aboriginal art in Canada.
Morrisseau is now in his 70s and is ailing, confined to a nursing home in Nanaimo, British Columbia.
His friend and longtime agent Jack Pollack, the art dealer who discovered Morrisseau in 1962, described him in his memoirs.
“He’s eccentric, mad, brilliant. He’s an extraordinary human being.”