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Book features grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada

By Costa Maragos Posted: September 28, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Carmen Robertson, professor of art history, is the author of Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau: Art and the Colonial Narrative in the Canadian Media.
Carmen Robertson, professor of art history, is the author of Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau: Art and the Colonial Narrative in the Canadian Media. Photo by Rae Graham – U of R Photography.

Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau continues to inspire, and defy nine years after his death.

His works are famous for their vibrant colours and Indigenous subject-matter. Many of the paintings hang in great art galleries around the world while others fetch thousands of dollars apiece.

Morrisseau was a controversial artist. His personal life received as much attention as his artwork. It certainly inspired Carmen Robertson, a professor of art history at the U of R.  Robertson is the author of Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau: Art and the Colonial Narrative in the Canadian Media. It’s published by University of Manitoba Press.

Robertson will discuss her book at a public event, Thursday September 29 at the University of Regina’s Riddell Centre (Crush Space). We spoke with Carmen about her book.  

What makes the Morrisseau story so compelling to you.

Carmen Robertson Poster

I have long wondered why an artist as significant as Morrisseau has had so little written about his work but so much media coverage about his behaviour. I decided to find you why.

I began by comparing Morrisseau to the American comedian Jerry Lewis. In the USA Lewis's humour was mostly viewed as mad cap at best, yet in France he was considered a comedic genius.

The French viewed Morrisseau as an artistic genius when he was largely forgotten or dismissed in art historical circles in Canada. in 1978 his art was chosen to represent Canada in an important exhibition mounted in Paris to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution called Magicians de la Terre yet it wasn’t until 2006 in Canada that he received a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.

Why was it that Morrisseau had more acclaim in Europe than in Canada?

I think it has to do more with racial politics than with artistic prowess. Morrisseau is a character as colourful as his art but for me it is his paintings that deserve attention.

You examine the "cultural assumptions that have framed Morrisseau." What do you mean by that?

As I examined media stories about the artist I uncovered countless stories that had little to do with his art but told a colonial narrative couched in terms of the "Imaginary Indian" a character made up of stereotypical tropes.

Of course, Morrisseau is not alone in receiving this treatment. I have also included in the book media coverage of artists such as Daphne Odjig, Alex Janvier, and Robert Houle to demonstrate how differently Indigenous arts and artists have been treated in Canada.

Happily, that has started to change and I hope this book will contribute to new ways of thinking about Morrisseau and contemporary Indigenous art histories.

You are teaching a class on Morrisseau. Why should Morrisseau matter to students?
I am teaching an art history course related to Morrisseau and Visual Storytelling for the first time this semester.

Students are first, mostly unaware of Norval Morrisseau and second, they have no idea that Morrisseau created a new visual language through his sophisticated and daring works of art.

For example, through his use of line and colour combined with Indigenous subject matters he creatively forged a new artistic movement that has been mostly dismissed and underappreciated outside of Indigenous art circles.

One of the complicating factors in writing about Morrisseau has been the roadblock to receiving copyright approval for publication. Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau, is, as a result, a book about representations and Morrisseau's own performative efforts to create an identity.

Carmen Robertson, professor of art history, is the author of Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau: Art and the Colonial Narrative in the Canadian Media. It’s published by University of Manitoba Press. She is the co-author of Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Universities. This semester she is teaching Shaman Artist: Visual Stories.

Event:      Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau
Date:       Thursday, Sept 29
Time:       4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Location: Riddell Centre – Crush Area
                University of Regina