The work of the Mishomis of contemporary Indigenous art comes to Regina
Many Faculty of Arts students take Art 100 to fulfil part of their degree requirements, and I’m sure many will remember a few key works from that course, for better or for worse. I know I could do without the memory of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal piece, cheekily entitled Fountain (1917), for example. On the other side of the spectrum, being an artist from that course I remember for the best of reasons, is Norval Morrisseau, whose work I have admired ever since.
Miskwaabik Animiiki (better known as Norval Morrisseau) was an Anishinaabeg artist, a residential school survivor, and has been called the Mishomis (grandfather) of contemporary Indigenous Canadian art. I hesitate to mention that he was a residential school survivor, as that aspect of his biography has been overly sensationalized particularly by settlers, but I do think it’s important to know when viewing his work. He is known for painting in bright colours and with a particular style.
When the press release for the Mackenzie Art Gallery’s exhibit Power Lines came to my inbox,I was positively thrilled. I have thought about Morrisseau’s work for years since first encountering it in that Art 100 classroom and was so excited to get to see it in person. But his work was even more magnificent than I expected it to be.
One of Morrisseau’s most famous works, “Androgyny,”is hanging at the top of the stairs on the way up to the gallery. It slowly comes into full view as you climb the stairs, and once you get to the top, you are completely immersed in it. I knew it was a large painting, but I was not prepared for just how large it really is. It was simply breathtaking and completely consuming. I could have spent my whole visit lost in the sunrise-like shape of it. I was actually nearly moved to tears, but a security guard popping up like a whack-a-mole to greet me pulled me out of the moment – though I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first or the last person to openly weep in the halls of the Mackenzie.
The exhibit is only one room of the gallery, sharing space with the collections Community Watch and Beyond the Stone Angel: Artists Reflect on the Deaths of Their Parents, which were also both stunning. I had the privilege of experiencing the exhibit by myself – there were no other patrons inside when I visited. The room felt very full, between the energy radiating from the artwork and the boom of Morriseau’s voice from a speaker overhead. The speaker is curiously placed, so I found I couldn’t understand what he was saying until I stood directly in the middle of the gallery, which was clever, as it put the listener in a precarious spot: to be watched.
When I entered the gallery, I immediately noticed that all eyes were on me – literally. The eyes of Morrisseau’s figures stared directly at me, followed me where I went, and were actually quite disturbing. Part of this I attributed to my positionality as a settler: coming into a gallery of intimate work depicting Morrisseau’s wife and child, sacred Anishinaabe characters, and his variations of Biblical characters felt like trespassing. I wouldn’t say this feeling completely quelled by the end, but I certainly felt more welcomed into the space once I noticed that the work demanded extra respect and care from me as a spectator.
The quality I love most in Morrisseau’s work is how he depicts the spirit world, which is why three of the largest paintings in the exhibit were my favourites. Though I was completely terrified by “Shaman Astral Guide I” and “Shaman Astral Guide II” and their aforementioned intense and unflinching gaze, I started to feel a surrendering deep within myself while looking at them. The two paintings are massive, stretching over halfway to the ceiling. If these two figures were really coming to take me into the spirit world, there would be nothing I could do about it but accept it. Talk about a memento mori.
I also adored Morrisseau’s “Mother Earth.” As one may guess from his famous piece “Androgyny,”many of the figures Morrisseau depicts are very androgynous, and Mother Earth was no exception. The backdrop is bisected into yellow and blue, representing both day and night and land and sea simultaneously, and Mother Earth herself is bisected too. I noticed the right side of her body has a breast, and the left doesn’t, which I thought symbolized a balance of masculine and feminine energies. And of course, “Androgyny”was a favourite of mine before I saw the exhibit.
Seeing Morrisseau’s work in real life was a very different experience than viewing it in photographs. Of course, this goes for any piece of artwork: being able to see the brush strokes inches from your face revolutionizes the experience. The exhibit brought out aspects of his work I hadn’t noticed before. Since the eyes felt like they were watching me, I paid more attention to them. They were so much more mournful that I remembered.
I also noticed how violent and dark some of the subjects of Morriseau’s paintings were. He’s known for his colourful depictions of spiritual beings, but many of his paintings were actually on brown paper with natural toned acrylic. Those were the darker paintings, ones that were occasionally grotesque and bloody, like “Onaman Beaver Blood Legend” and “Man Beset by Leeches.”
I noticed these darker aspects present in the colourful pieces too, like in his depictions of Christ, Adam and Eve, and even “Shaman Astral Guide I” and “Shaman Astral Guide II.” The intense gazes were part of this, of course, but I found Morrisseau’s depictions of Biblical figures displayed in and amongst figures of Anishinaabeg culture and stories even more unnerving. It was while looking at these Biblical depictions that I was reminded of the fact that Morrisseau was a residential school survivor and knowing a bit about the weaponization of Catholicism in those schools weighed heavily on me.
Balance and symmetry are so key to Morrisseau’s work, as is the concept of a “circle of life,” which are all represented in his paintings, from the structure of “Androgyny” to “Adam and Eve.” This is why I remarked earlier that the exhibit is smartly set in a square room instead of a hallway like the other two exhibits. It moves the spectator in a circle through the paintings, through that unsettling feeling of being watched, through Morrisseau’s pain and joy, and out the other side. I came out feeling transformed.
 “Norval Morrisseau: Life and Work” Carmen Robertson, Art Canada Institute Website.