Spiritual Self Looks Beyond (1976) Norval Morrisseau

Spiritual Self Looks Beyond
Norval Morrisseau
1976, acrylic on canvass, 48″ x 36″

NORVAL MORRISSEAU:
BEST CANADIAN PAINTER EVER

I’m guessing that when the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Winter Olympics finally roll around in two years there’s going to be lots of references to Aboriginal culture. Lots of dancing, drumming, native dress, references to aboriginal creation myths during the opening ceremonies; some elders will be brought in to bless the proceedings, that kind of thing. You can already see them using an Inuksuk (those Inuit ‘rock piles’) as one of their official icons. And as it should be. I have no problem with it, in fact I’m all for it. Like Australians we post-centennial, post-modern Canadians like to reach back to the deep time or the dream time when it comes time to show our face to the world. How real we are. The indigenous art. What inspired up and out from the land before the blight of colonialism. See, “we” are as ancient as everybody else. As old as Europe. I suppose its a kind of progress really, but a large dose of irony might still be necessary amidst all our mutual, terribly official self-congratulation.

Residential schools aside – check out Bill Reid on the twenty dollar bill. Bill Reid at the Vancouver airport. And my personal favourite, Bill Reid at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

Many a Canadian white boy and girl has ventured forth into the bush, however clumsily, trying to catch a whiff of the spirits. Going deep, getting back, oh yeah – getting real. Going back to the earth, because as the late, great Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen once wrote: “No one invited us here.”

But I wonder if any “Canadian” (and yes, in the context of this post I do feel the need to put that word in quotation marks) ever saw this ‘real spirit’ behind the surface of what we now call Canada better and more vibrantly than the recently, dearly departed Norval Morrisseau. His paintings were literally churning from the inside out. Skeletal and skeletons. Often called “x-ray”. People within animals and animals within people and animals within animals within people covered in flowers riding on a fish, and all of it singing in the most glorious colour. And so out there and dangerous, freaky, hallucinogenic, tripping the bounds of sanity, and erotic. And inspired by sacred, ancient aboriginal myth.

Why am I alive?”he said in a 1991 interview with The Toronto Star. “To heal you guys who are more screwed up than I am. How can I heal you? With color. These are the colors you dreamt about one night.”

I’ve adored his work for years, before I ever knew his name or even knew who the heck he was. I bought my first Norval Morrisseau print a few years back at some poster sale in Hamilton and I remember riding the GO bus back into Toronto with the thing spread out on my lap for the whole trip, taking it in grinning ear to ear, just dazzled. And that was just a print. A poster. I tacked it to my kitchen wall and it made me happy every time I looked at it.

If anyone was the God Father of the Renaissance of Aboriginal Art and Culture that has ultimately made Canada a much humbler, more honest, better and yes more beautiful place, it had to be him. And at its heart the work was a profound movement for justice. That which cannot be denied.

Marc Chagall famously compared him to Picasso.
Keep your Group of Seven’s, sure.
But Norval Morrisseau was the Best Canadian Painter Ever.

Reid Neufeld
Global Health Nexus