Cover Story

The new age of Indian Art

Christopher Hume January 22 1979
Cover Story

The new age of Indian Art

Christopher Hume January 22 1979

This article was originally published on Jan. 22, 1979, under the headline "The new age of Indian Art"

It all started as a dream. In 1957 Norval Morrisseau was visited one night by the Thunderbird, an Ojibway deity, who told him he had been chosen for a special mission. “I was scared,” says Morrisseau, “and tried to run away. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ said the Thunder god. ‘We are testing you and you have passed the test.’ ” His task—and it became the task of a lifetime—was to break ancient taboos and set down for the first time sacred tribal myths and legends for everyone, Indian and white, to see. Under the Thunderbird’s protection, Morrisseau began to paint visions never recorded before, reaching out beyond the Indian world. His debut in 1962 at Jack Pollock’s Toronto gallery was an incredible success—all 42 paintings sold out on opening day. When his 12th show opens at the same gallery Jan. 29, it is expected to sell out—like all the others. In September, The Art of Norval Morrisseau, a big-time glossy art book coauthored by Pollock and Lister Sinclair, will be published by Methuen of Canada. The circle widens.

Twenty-two years after Morrisseau was shaken in his sleep by an importunate god, more than 100 Indian artists are exhibiting in galleries throughout Canada. It’s nothing less than a renaissance, or perhaps, as some would have it, the last great outpouring of a dying culture. As Morrisseau wrote in his book, Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway: “It would indeed be a great loss if these legends and beliefs . . . are forgotten. For so much is lost. Every day an Ojibway elder dies, and every day some of the knowledge of his ancestors dies with him.” Many of the Cree Ojibway-Odawa school of Woodland artists—Del Ashkewe, Jackson Beardy, the Kakegamic brothers, Daphne Odjig, and Carl Ray and Benjamin Chee Chee who both died violently and young have travelled far beyond the original impulse to record Indian culture before it disappeared. So much has happened since Morrisseau picked up his brush that already the term “Indian art” is old-fashioned. Says Del Ashkewe, “There is no such thing as Indian art, only Indian artists.”

If the bold flowering of its visual art is any indication, the Indian way of life is stronger now than it has been at any time during the century. In 1932, when Norval Morrisseau was born (in a small barn somewhere near Fort William, Ontario), the old tribal ways were almost obsolete. But he had the boon of a remarkably traditional upbringing: as eldest son he was sent, according to Ojibway custom, to live with his grandparents, and it was his grandfather, Moses Nanakonagas, who educated the young boy in Ojibway ways, spending countless hours recounting tales of the people. (Morrisseau didn’t spend much time in the white man’s world of Indian schools—just long enough to graduate from Grade 2.) His grandmother was a stern Catholic, educated by Jesuit missionaries, and she introduced her grandson to her particular brand of Christianity. The inevitable conflict between his grandparents’ beliefs is still being fought by Morrisseau. By any account, he is an extremely religious man, having been over the years many kinds of Christian: Pentecostal, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic. Three years ago, he joined Eckankar, a doctrine of soul travel he finds compatible with Ojibway belief. “I was often guilty when I was a Christian,” he says, “but as soon as I came back to my Indian beliefs there was no fear, there was no sin or guilt.” (No word for “guilt” exists in Algonkian, the Ojibway language.) Shifting from one shade of religion to another, Morrisseau has nonetheless stayed a shaman, or medicine man. Although he won’t confirm or deny it, his friends believe he was initiated at an early age in the Shaking Tent ceremony, a sacred rite witnessed by few, if any, whites.

During his teens Morrisseau began to paint, if not on canvas at least in his imagination. It was something he had always wanted to do: “I am a born artist. Some people are born artists and most others are not. This is also the way with Indians.” His earliest works were done with whatever happened to be at hand—wax crayons, construction paper, birch bark—and he destroyed each piece when it was finished for fear of being discovered. Art wasn’t Morrisseau’s only adolescent find: at 13 he took his first drink. It became as strong an obsession. From the beginning, says Morrisseau, it was a matter of drinking “to get drunk—when I wanted to get drunk I wanted as much as I could drink.” His notion of a “social” drink: “40 ounces, straight out of the bottle.”

Until the Thunderbird’s visit, Morrisseau lived the stereotype of Indian life—working when necessary to finance his drunks. The dream changed all that. It wasn’t that he suddenly sobered up (his struggle with alcohol didn’t end until 1976, when he joined Eckankar), but he had a purpose. Protected by his vision of the Thunderbird, Morrisseau was immune to the curses of the Ojibway medicine men. When Jack Pollock, his dealer-to-be, arrived in Beardmore, Ont., to teach art, everyone told him stories of the great young painter who lived out by the town’s garbage dump. Pollock, expecting nothing, waited for Morrisseau to come to him, which he did, introducing himself at the end of one of the classes. “I snapped him right up for a show,” says Pollock. “By accident of isolation he is a painter untouched and uninhibited. The richness of the legends and his talent elevate his art beyond mere decoration.” The immediate sellout of Morrisseau’s first show left Pollock astounded: “It was a dream come true. Before the exhibition no one had ever heard of Norval Morrisseau—overnight he became a celebrated artist.”

And he has remained one: every show since 1967 has sold out completely. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of his prints and paintings have been bought by collectors in and outside Canada. A limited edition of The Art of Norval Morrisseau, complete with a portfolio of signed and numbered prints, will be ready for the Jan. 29 show, purchase price, $1,000 a copy. Last month, Governor-General Jules Léger awarded Morrisseau the Order of Canada, this country’s highest civilian honour. The financial rewards, the acclaim, have been great, though not so easy to handle. “For Morrisseau the problems of success were enormous,” says Pollock. “The native way with money is to share—when one has money, everybody has money. His wealth enabled the entire community of Beardmore to booze for nothing. He attracted all kinds of tribal groupies who expected that from then on he’d have a never-ending supply of dollars.”

But only outsiders diagnose him as a victim of tortured-artist syndrome. Morrisseau laughs: “They speak about this tortured man, me, but I’m not. I’ve had a marvelous time, when I was drinking and now that I’m not, a marvelous time in my life.” He still lives in Beardmore in a house without running water, an amenity only “neurotic white men” need. The now famous lawn party Morrisseau hosted last June for his friends from the art world (“If the Queen can hold garden parties, why can’t I?”) was nevertheless white gloves and long dresses all the way. The 30 guests, who chartered a plane to get to Beardmore, passed a delightful afternoon quaffing exotic Ojibway herbal teas and oranges injected with vodka.

But nobody enjoys Morrisseau more than Morrisseau. He is a great artist and he knows it. When he talks, others listen; where he goes, people follow. His current travelling companion is an 18-year-old Ojibway, Brian Marion. Like all good disciples, Marion looks after the details. He carries the tobacco, rolls the cigarettes, always has a match and translates from Aglonkian when the effort becomes too much for his master.

Morrisseau was the beginning of what is now usually called the Woodland Indian school of artists — Indians from the Cree, Ojibway and Odawa tribes. Their homeland is the vast area  of Ontario and Manitoba sweeping north from the Great Lakes to the Arctic. They refer to themselves as the Anishinabek, which means, simply, the People. For thousands of years the Anishinabek passed their sacred myths and legends from one generation to the next by word of mouth. But their oral traditions were dealt a near-fatal blow with the arrival of European traders, missionaries and farmers. The novelty of European technology seduced young Indians into ignoring their past.

Morrisseau, with his traditional Ojibway upbringing, was able to develop an iconography based on legend that helped a new generation of Indians reach back to their almost forgotten heritage. His earliest efforts closely resemble early Ojibway rock paintings and Midéwewin birch bark scrolls. The visual language adapted by him is central to the whole Woodland movement, the symbolism its trademark.

That trademark is now adopted by artists creeping up to Morrisseau’s status in both technique and reputation. Artists such as Carl Ray, the 34year-old Cree Indian painter recently killed in a drunken brawl. Or Samuel Ash, 27, Saul Williams, 23, and Roy Thomas, 29—all Ontario Ojibway Indians; Jackson Beardy, 34, a Cree born on the Garden Hill Reserve in Manitoba; the whole group of Odawa artists from Manitoulin Island, Ont.—Blake Debassige, 22, and Francis Kagige, 39, to name two; Goyce and Joshim Kakegamic, Crees from the Sandy Lake Reserve in Ontario who formed the flourishing Triple K print co-operative with their brother Henry in 1973.

At the vanguard of their vocabulary is the divided circle. Morrisseau explains: “I made circles because they represent something with no beginning and no ending, and I divided them in half because there are two sides to everything, good and bad, short and tall, love and hate, man and woman.” Lines of power or “power projections” are also found in most Woodland art, often seen emanating from representations of shamans and gods to show their power or energy. “Lines coming from the mouth might link with another figure’s ears, indicating who is speaking and who’s listening,” explains Elizabeth McLuhan, a cultural consultant with Ontario’s ministry of culture and recreation and an Indian art expert. “Lines extending outward from a particular sense organ such as the eyes mean not only vision but visionary quality.” Painters of the Morrisseau school also use silhouette and x-ray techniques, cutting through an object, demonstrating just how the Indian perception of reality differs in its refusal to separate rigidly the visible and known from their opposites. These symbols were considered by their native inventors to possess, as well as represent, certain qualities. Notations dealing with the transfer of sacred power or spiritual energy, for example, are themselves charged with a special significance—and are sacred. The curses hurled at Morrisseau resulted from his attempt to use sacred pictography for nonreligious ends.

Others had more trouble enduring the slings and arrows of the shamans. Carl Ray, who ranks second to Morrisseau among the Woodland artists, was the grandson of a powerful Cree shaman, and knew the explicit price of sacrilege. Ray (his Indian name, Menapozugabo, means Tall Straight Poplar) had learned tribal lore from his mother, his uncle and village elders, and believed he had to risk everything to record his heritage “before all is lost in the void of white man’s civilization.” Medicine men threatened to blind him, and though he never lost his sight he did sicken and was unable to paint for several years. Despite his trials and until his death, Ray was a master of graphic art. One of his finest pieces, Shaking Tent Ritual (the initiation Morrisseau is rumored to have undergone) shows his talent for large balanced pieces filled with exquisite detail. His delicate, almost Oriental work stands in contrast to Morrisseau’s bold blasts of color.

In the end, it wasn’t the medicine men who defeated Ray. Last Sept. 23, Ray was found “following an altercation” beaten and bleeding on a street in Sioux Lookout, Ont., and died in hospital. Though the circumstances of his death haven’t been made public (the case is still before the courts), Ray had been drinking with Indian friends that night and a fight started that carried out into the street. At the time of his death, Ray was both a professional artist and the editor of Kitiwin, the newspaper at Sandy Lake, where he grew up—a man who had dedicated himself to preserving the Indian way of life. Ironically, the person charged with his death is Indian.

This violent current runs through the lives of most Woodland Indian painters, branding them as distinctively as their shared symbolism. The most tragic figure among them was Benjamin Chee Chee, an Ojibway artist from Temagami, Ont., who hanged himself in an Ottawa jail cell March 14, 1977. He had been arrested for disturbing the peace while under the influence of alcohol; he was 32. What puzzles all who knew him is that Chee Chee had just achieved both of the major goals he had set for himself, the first of which was to become a self-supporting artist. His Toronto dealer, Neil Sneyd of the Wildlife Gallery, says Chee Chee made $40,000 the year he died (though he once sold $30,000 worth of prints on a Friday night and was broke by Monday morning). His second goal was to find his mother, from whom he had been separated sometime in early childhood. He located Josephine Roy working as a cleaning lady in Toronto only months before he killed himself.

What puzzles some who look at Chee Chee’s work from the outside, the critics and collectors, is the apparent contradiction of a man, who (among other things) spent nine years in assorted prisons and reformatories. Grace, simplicity and a crisp use of line best describe his art. His drawings are so sparse that some refuse to call them art. Wayne Edmonstone, an art critic of The Vancouver Sun, thinks that Chee Chee’s painting remained “the signatures of a talented man who in the esthetic sense still [had) to decipher his full name.” However, since his suicide, Chee Chee’s price has skyrocketed.

The 31-year-old Ojibway painter Del Ashkewe, one of the new generation inspired by the Woodland school but not part of it, explains: “I was forced to be a fighter. It wasn’t what I wanted, that’s not me. I’m a painter, an artist.” Born on Ontario’s Cape Croker Reserve and veteran of several years at Brantford’s Residential Indian School (where he says his fluency in Algonkian was punished out of him), he lives a wanderer’s life, out of range of telephones, his mailing address out-of-date. “In my world,” he says, “there are no legalities, no contracts, nothing like that. There is only honor and for honor you die.” His painting, like Chee Chee’s, does not reflect the violence of his life; his latest project was illustrating an Ojibway folk tale, How the Birds Got Their Colors, published last November by Kids Can Press.

Tribal legend painting, initiated to stop the final encroachment of white culture, has expanded into a concern to communicate with everyone. Morrisseau, once the student, is now the teacher. Young artists like Del Ashkewe are concerned with a personal vision— they begin where the Woodland school ends. Critics have become fond of saying that the grande dame of the native art scene, 53-year-old Daphne Odjig, owes more to Pablo Picasso than to any Indian painter. Native artists are beginning to have an international impact, exhibitions of Odjig and others travelling through the U.S., Europe and Japan. “But for some reason,” laments Iroquois artist Tom Hill, Canadians have never given it the kind of serious examination that has taken place elsewhere.” Pollock and other dealers of Indian artists believe there are bastions of official resistance, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada: “There seems to be an unwritten policy—painting coming from ‘primitive’ cultures is not considered high art. Their treatment of Indian artists as ethnological oddities is nothing less than racist.”

It takes a long time to break down walls. If the results of the European arrival in North America are to be understood, it must be in terms of the clash between opposing cultures—one, oral and intuitive; the other, literate and mechanical. The visual arts alone have allowed some limited communication. First, native sensibilities had to adjust to the very notion of art. There is no word in any Indian language that means “art”; native painting always had other significance, either religious or decorative. Morrisseau’s revolution changed all that. He made Indian art possible not by ignoring the shamans, but by becoming one himself. A gift from the Thunderbird—his own, even greater, magic.