Friday, January 30, 2015

Carmen Robertson about Norval Morrisseau

Carmen Robertson
Norval Morrisseau’s genius in art gaining recognition

Originally published on July 18th, 2013

Although renowned woodland artist Norval Morrisseau passed away in 2007, his “genius” as an artist is gaining more recognition than ever before.

“Since the retrospective exhibition in 2006, Canadians and audiences more generally in Canada have realized the amazing talent that he is as an artist and have started to look at the art in ways that they just sort of pigeon-holed prior to 2006 as ‘Native art,’” said Carmen Robertson, a Lokata art historian from the University of Regina. “Putting it into the National Gallery of Canada forced people to think about this art in new ways and see what an amazing colourist he was, to see the stories he tells.”

Robertson said Morrisseau has been taken more seriously as an artist since 2006.

“Because of this notoriety he has received and continues to receive now, people start to think about his work in ways that they hadn’t realized: all the themes in it, all the different subject matters that he was exploring,” Robertson said. “They’ve started to look at it more seriously and they’ve realized just how rich and multi-layered his work is.”

Robertson delivered a presentation on Morrisseau’s art, Telling Stories on Canvas: Norval Morrisseau’s Visual Narratives, on July 4 at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. She has completed a book on Morrisseau’s role as a trailblazer and another on how the Canadian press has imagined Indigenous peoples since Confederation.

“One of the really frustrating aspects that occurred with Morrisseau is there is a mythology around him that is negative, that is very stereotypical and connected to the kind of racism that we see in Canada’s press,” Robertson said. “But what’s really interesting is how Morrisseau, throughout these interviews and in quotes in newspapers but also in NFB documentary films, has talked back and has really kept saying to reporters in many of these reports: ‘It’s not about me, it’s about my art. Focus on my art, talk about my art.’”

Robertson said it is interesting to see how Morrisseau began to manipulate the stereotypes to work in his favour.

“For example, the connection to the shaman aspects, he really does promote those in the press because he sees that those positive aspects of the stereotypes are what people really wanted to see,” Robertson said. “So he begins to talk about himself as a shaman in ways he doesn’t at the beginning and re-imagines himself as well.”

Robertson said people are beginning to study his work and are recognizing his legacy.

“Today, students in art history classes throughout Canada are beginning to study Morrisseau and that’s a very exciting new direction,” Robertson said. “Art history programs and high school art programs have begun to add Morrisseau and his work to their offering so that a wider population has an opportunity to look more closely at his work.”

As more is written about Morrisseau and more people begin to talk about his work, Robertson said people will begin to realize that his contribution to Canadian art history is more than “just telling spiritual stories about Anishinabe ideas.”

“What we see is he created a unique visual language that no other Canadian artist did, and that to me is his incredible legacy,” Robertson said. “If you think of artists like Van Gogh or Picasso, they created a way about talking about the world through their art in new ways and new visual language. And Morrisseau did that in Canada. I think that is so important and internationally important. So we really need to start thinking about his genius as an artist.”

Rick Garrick

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