The Gift 1975
The Gift is a politically charged painting that demonstrates Norval Morrisseau’s keen understanding of colonialism and challenges the inaccurate assumption that he is simply a painter of legends. This image of a shaman meeting a missionary directly confronts the role Christianity has played in the settling of Canada.
The “gift” to which Morrisseau refers in the title has several meanings that highlight a complex conflation of interrelated issues. First, the dots inside the three figures suggest smallpox and symbolize the historic spread of disease that arrived with Europeans and devastated Indigenous populations. Additionally, while the shaman and the missionary appear to exchange spiritual ideas, the young child seems to be captivated by the medicine bag. Though the shaman is shielding his child (and subsequent generations of Indigenous peoples), the Christian ways and European ideas signified by the missionary and the “gifts” in his medicine bag are seductive.
Other meanings of this painting are more ambiguous. While the overall palette of this work is executed in earth tones, Morrisseau incorporates the colours green and red to highlight an epistemological clashing of ways of knowing that occurred with European contact: the missionary thinks with his brain (green on red), while the shaman thinks with his heart (red on green). A large black dot in the centre of the missionary’s brain may signal Morrisseau’s wounding experience with Christianity in a residential school, where he experienced physical and sexual abuse. The work, then, deals with both historic and contemporary problems associated with colonialism.