Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau (1931–2007) painted the manitou, or spirit-being, Micipijiu more than once, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. In Anishinaabe culture, Micipijiu, sometimes described as a horned water lynx, expresses the duality of good and evil. Literary theorist Victoria Brehm argues that this powerful water spirit underwent a metamorphosis after the period of European contact, a result of Western influence on the Anishinaabe worldview: once a figure that enhanced social cohesion, Micipijiu came to be seen as an evil figure. 


Norval Morrisseau, Water Spirit, 1972

Norval Morrisseau, Water Spirit, 1972
Acrylic on brown kraft paper, 81 x 183 cm, Canadian Museum of History, Gatineau, QC

The forceful image we see here dominates the otherwise blank field and demonstrates the complexities of Morrisseau’s assured artistic practice. Pictographs of Micipijiu have been found at the ancient Agawa rock art site on Lake Superior in northwestern Ontario, and Morrisseau paints this Micipijiu in an earth-tone palette that recalls Anishinaabe rock art and and incised birckbark representations. Yet the work, by its scale, themes, and visual language, remains wholly contemporary. Strong lines define the image, and the interior segmentation of the figure’s body illustrates an incarnation of spiritual and physical power. The circular forms that surround the water spirit represent its dualities (good and evil) and symbolize the megis, the cowrie shell that gives balance in life to the Anishinaabe. The undulating being signifies the turbulent waters of northwestern Ontario lakes, but also tells of the rocky times Morrisseau faced in the ten years after the success of his 1962 debut art exhibition.


This Spotlight is excerpted from Norval Morrisseau: Life & Work by Carmen Roberston.

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