When Norval Morrisseau arrived on the Canadian art scene in 1962 with his exhibition at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto, he sparked a national news event and commenced a rupture in Canadian art.
At a time when enforced assimilation was national policy and First Nations had only recently been accorded the right to vote in federal elections, Morrisseau’s paintings stood out because few Indigenous people made art that was viewed as contemporary within the narrow framework accepted in mainstream cultural circles. Most Indigenous artworks were considered artifacts, and were displayed in ethnographic museums rather than art galleries.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the federal government had invested heavily in the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, and its director, James Houston (1921–2005), worked hard to market Inuit soapstone carvings, drawings, and prints as modern artistic expressions. The Canadian Guild of Crafts also supported Indigenous arts, but its shows were typically held in venues other than art galleries. Without government intervention, there appeared to be little appetite for Indigenous art in galleries in the early 1960s.
Morrisseau’s 1962 exhibition at the Pollock Gallery marked a turning point because of the artist’s racial identity and because he was creating contemporary art. Works like Moose Dream Legend, 1962, were hailed as both primitive and modern by critics at the time. Morrisseau’s work demonstrated clear links to the oral narrative traditions of the Anishinaabe in its process and its focus on animals and spirit-beings, but also commented on how 150 years of the assimilationist policies of Canada’s Indian Act, which included residential schooling, had visibly erased Indigenous issues and understandings from Canadian public life.
Morrisseau’s entry onto the art scene marked a turning point. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the United States and inspired Native Americans to push for greater equality, and as Indigenous populations in Mexico advanced similar struggles, Canadian Indigenous peoples also organized and confronted government practices.
In June 1969 the release of the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy (a document commonly known as the 1969 White Paper) by the Pierre Trudeau government in Ottawa triggered a series of political events. These resulted in the creation of the National Indian Brotherhood and regional factions that challenged the federal government to make changes to a system that was stacked against First Nations people. Artists joined forces, too, to change the racialized ways art was being exhibited in Canada.
In 1967 Indigenous artists were commissioned to create the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, a moment now considered pivotal in acknowledging activism and awareness of Indigenous issues in Canada. Morrisseau was part of a group called the Professional Native Indian Artists Inc., which was established by Odawa artist Daphne Odjig (1919–2016) in Winnipeg in 1973 and labelled the Indian Group of Seven by the press.
Despite Morrisseau’s ground-breaking success in 1962, it would take another thirty years before Morrisseau’s work became part of the National Gallery of Canada’s collection. As early as 1972 anthropologist and artist Selwyn Dewdney (1909–1979) had tried to persuade the National Gallery of Canada to add works by Morrisseau to its collection, but his effort was unsuccessful. At the time, the ethnographic Canadian Museum of Man, then in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of History, Hull, Quebec), was the Canadian institution that collected contemporary Indigenous art, whereas the National Gallery bought works by non-Indigenous Canadian artists.
Not until 2006 did the National Gallery purchase work by Morrisseau and make him the subject of its first retrospective exhibition devoted entirely to an Indigenous artist. As art critic Paul Gessel, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, noted under the front-page headline “An Art Pioneer Makes His Final Breakthrough,” “Who would be the first Native artist to be given a show akin to the exhibitions granted such ‘white’ Canadian artists as Tom Thomson and Emily Carr? The consensus among the Aboriginal art community was that Norval Morrisseau…had to be the one.”
This media coverage repositioned Morrisseau as a major Canadian artist, validated Indigenous art as contemporary, and helped end the practice of separating Indigenous from mainstream artists in public discourse.