Androgyny is breathtaking not only because of its intense colours and sheer size but also because of its intent and its complex imagery. The monumental canvas expresses Norval Morrisseau’s personal understanding of life’s interconnectedness and explores his notions of gender identity. At the centre of this painted cosmic universe is a dome enclosed by the outstretched wings of Thunderbird. The spirit figure is accompanied at the core of this world by other spirit-beings, or manitous, that represent the life force of all living things, including the snake that reaches from the underworld to the spirit world. Surrounding this centre are the turtles, muskrats, frogs, fish, birds, butterflies, trees, and men, women, and children that appear in many of Morrisseau’s works.
In Anishinaabe tradition, an offering or a gift is often given to create ties, to honour, or to ask for assistance. Morrisseau may have painted this mural to articulate his vision of a united Canada, and he offered it to the people of Canada as a decolonizing gesture of reconciliation, supporting artist and curator Gerald McMaster’s characterization that Morrisseau’s “greatest contribution to the art world was giving voice to Anishinaabe art and culture.” In a letter to the office of then–Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau explaining his planned gift, Morrisseau wrote: “The theme of the mural is A [sic] shaman that is Androgyne in four directions, filled with all parts of nature in Canada, thunderbeings, sacred serpents and turtles, flowers, animals, and we children of Mother Earth. PS. Butterflies and Bumble Bees, too!” Morrisseau hoped the acceptance of this offering signalled the government’s dedication to making Canada a welcoming and supportive place for all its peoples.
Androgyny was installed in the vast lobby of the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada headquarters in Gatineau, Quebec, in April 1983, where it hung, largely forgotten, until 2006, when the National Gallery of Canada chose to include it in a retrospective exhibition of Morrisseau’s work. In the retrospective, Androgyny dominated an entire wall, drawing viewers to it and making it a favourite of visitors to the exhibition.
Because of the exposure the painting received during the retrospective, then–Governor General Michaëlle Jean arranged for it to be installed in the ballroom at her official residence, Rideau Hall. While it hung there, Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose the painting as the backdrop for the unveiling of his 2008 Cabinet. The press photos of that event show the prime minister and his Cabinet standing before Morrisseau’s offering to the Canadian people. Androgyny, now recognized by critics and art historians as a significant work of Canadian art, reminds Canadians of the enduring bond formed by this important gift exchange.