"Shaman Warrior", © 1990s Norval Morrisseau
Two weeks ago I attended a major retrospective of Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau at Canada's National Gallery of Art. There is nothing 'western' about Morrisseau's art. It grows powerfully and organically out of his own people's Native tradition. It makes no apologies on behalf of its creator - indeed it confronts western sensibilities and announces its own potency. Morrisseau could care less if the 'white man' never declared him credible; he knows his authenticity. Like the great Nanibooshou of his people's legends, Morrisseau shakes his great head, lays down his foot and the leaves fall from the trees. Compare this to European art at the turn of the last century. Photography, a creature of western technology, had only recently reared its head prompting artists to run for the cover of ingenuity. "Something new, something new," became the 'Om' of art. That most deconstructionist of artists Pablo Picasso sheds an interesting light on all of this. When he and others in his circle began co-opting forms from oceanic and African cultures it was an admission of the desperate extremes western artists would go to in order 'break new ground.'
And while their adoring publics were tittering about the greatness of these new maestros' wild and carnivorous works, the newly reforming masters of orthodoxy continued to mischaracterize the sources of Picasso et al's 'inspiration.' They continued to look down their noses at the 'primitives' (savages) who truly created the source art and their cultures. In Canada, Native artists who painted in styles and forms that grew authentically out of their own cultures had to live with the fact that in their own land their works were 'banished' from the cultural temples of white society - i.e. the major public art galleries. For over 40 years the 'esteemed' Art Gallery of Ontario revealed its ethnocentricity by declaring the works of Morrisseau and others as being fit only to be shown in ethnographic and natural history museums. How barren!
Back to the Morrisseau exhibition in Ottawa. After viewing the showing, my wife and I decided to take in the works of the permanent collection. Walking through hall after hall of Flemish masters and Italian renaissance masters etc., we stumbled across a room labeled 'New York School.' Entering the room we were immediately confronted by two massive colour field paintings by Barnett Newman. One of these - 'Red Stripe' - was a triptych nearly 20 feet in height. It almost demanded an act of worship be done. I laughed out loud because, for one thing, it reminded me of my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Remember the scene at the end when the cavemen come upon the huge blank monolith, the drums pounding out the rhythm in the soundtrack... Enigmatic to say the least! In the end they worshipped nothing. My sincerest thanks for your patience in reading this rant. I make no apology though - I am, after all, a Mohawk.
Kahnawake, QC, Canada
Source: Robert Genn's "The Painter's Keys"
* The painting in this post: "Shaman Warrior", 48"x23", © 1990s Gabe Vadas