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Untitled (Shaman)

Norval Morrisseau
Untitled (Shaman) c. 1971
Acrylic on paper, mounted on hardboard
130.7 × 89.7 cm
Gift of Audrey and Gary Kilpatrick, Rainy River, Ontario, 2000

Miskwaabik Animiiki, or Copper Thunderbird, is the name Norval Morrisseau's grandfather gave him. It is a powerful name, and Morrisseau is a powerful artist.

A self-taught painter and printmaker, Morrisseau is the originator of the "Woodland" school of painting, indigenous to the area and culture from which he came. He is recognized internationally, and is widely collected in public institutions across Canada and abroad. As a young child living on the Sand Point Reserve near Lake Nipigon, Morrisseau acquired his knowledge of Anishnaabe (Ojibwa) customs and legends from his grandfather and the ways of Catholicism from his grandmother. He was able to combine these seemingly opposed spiritual systems and found a means of expression that could communicate his own spiritual values.

Among the characteristics of the Woodland style are an "X-ray" manner of representing people and animals, a sinewy line, bright contrasting colours, and "spirit" or "power" lines that emanate from, surround, and connect various figures. These visual articulations of Anishnaabe spirituality have their basis in the iconography of the birchbark scrolls of the Midewiwin (a spiritual, healing, and political society of the Anishnaabe) and of petroglyphs and pictographs found in various sites throughout northwestern Ontario.

Untitled (Shaman) is one of Morrisseau's early explorations of shamanistic themes. The figure in it carries a medicine stick, and is seen wearing a blanket, a beaded collar, armbands, a medicine pouch, and a hood that appears to be in a state of transformation - objects all associated with the Midewiwin. Morrisseau often depicts these hoods turning into some animal or other, possibly representing various clan symbols or totems. As a shaman himself, Morrisseau has taken it upon himself to transmit the teachings of the Anishnaabe in a visual way, so as to make them more widely accessible.

Untitled (Shaman) demonstrates the artist's early use of more saturated colour. "X-ray" representation is deployed only in a limited way, and there are none of the "power" lines that would become so prominent in his later work. This painting is part of a slow evolution in Morrisseau's use of colour. His early paintings on birchbark and plywood are almost monochromatic, and have unpainted backgrounds, leaving the grain of the wood or bark to become part of the overall aesthetic. Untitled (Shaman) is transitional, situated somewhere between the earthy tones of the early work and the extremely bright, sometimes almost neon, fields of intense colour of the later work. As colour became increasingly important to Morrisseau, he would use the entire surface as a vehicle of expression, filling both his subjects and his backgrounds with the most intense hues. His bright colours, harmoniously combined, are directly related to his spiritual beliefs, even to the point of being endowed with the power to heal.