Norval Morrisseau and his painting Sacred Buffalo
Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Buffalo, 1963, from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery
The artwork that I will be writing about for this blog post is by Norval Morrisseau, titled Sacred Buffalo from 1963. I chose to look into this work because I had been familiar with Norval Morrisseau’s spectacular paintings and monumental influence on visual art and representation, but had never yet written about him and his incredible work.
Norval Morrisseau was an Anishinaabe artist, born in 1931, whose revolutionary artistic vision completely changed the course of visual art and Indigenous representation within Canadian art. His bold lines and vibrant colors are visually captivating, and all weave together to tell stories or project messages that he found important.
His game-changing style and practice created a movement of new artwork titled the Woodland school of art, and his prominence aligned with other incredible contemporary Indigenous artists such as Alex Janvier and Daphne Odjig (all three of whom were members of the Indigenous Group of Seven) to widen the scope of prominent Indigenous artists within mainstream art.
The term “mainstream art” here is worth some explanation. During the time Morrisseau was becoming well known for his paintings was a time when the art world was mainly focused on showing and supporting male European and American artists, and the movements made prominent by these artists such as Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual art and installation/ performance.
As an Indigenous artist, Morrisseau’s work challenged this “mainstream”, and his success within mainstream art faced barriers that prominent American and European artists at the time did not.
The Indigenous Group of Seven is interesting to talk about here, because the seven artists who were a part of the group were all active throughout the 1970’s fighting against the prejudice of the art world and seeking to carve out room for more Indigeneity to be represented in the Canadian art scene of the time.
Ultimately, that is what their involvement with one another and with the group achieved. Jackson Beardy, Norval Morriseau, Daphne Odjig, Eddy Cobiness, Carl Ray, Alex Janvier, and Joseph Sanchez were the members of this group, and their art work and activist work within the group received a lot of recognition and was a really big moment in Canadian art history.
Focusing back to Norval Morrisseau, I think his work is incredibly powerful and it has become very well known and distinguished. His style and success worked as a catalyst for future Anishinaabe and Indigenous artists to create and express in a way that is both contemporary and well loved within the marketable art scene. I think it is really inspiring to see how his distinct style has influenced other artists, and it is also really impressive to me how rapidly and widely the movement that Morrisseau started grew. Although Morrisseau passed away in 2007, his artistic vision has left lasting impacts on the art world.
Norval Morriseau grew up with his grandparents, and received many of his teachings from his grandfather, who lived the role of a shaman in Midewiwin spirituality. Spirituality and art making were both overarching themes throughout Norval Morriseau’s life, and stories and lessons about the nature of the world became the foundation for many of the artist’s creations.
Norval Morrisseau pictured in front of one of his paintings, courtesy of the artist's website: https://www.officialmorrisseau.com/about.aspx
The work here at the gallery that I’ve been getting to look at and spend time with is titled Sacred Buffalo from 1963. This painting shows a buffalo painted in black in the center of the composition. Inside the buffalo there are two yellow ovals, each divided down the middle with a solid line and decorated on each half. From the buffalo’s mouth there is a blue line, which encircles the entire animal and connects back to the top of its shoulders. This blue line connects to four more divided circles, the very last one resembling a sun. The composition of this image is very balanced, and the rendering is done in Morrisseau’s signature style. The image is both simple and balanced, yet very detailed and complex.
I don’t know the entire story of the painting but I have been able to piece together some really exciting facts about the image, such as:
the black lines which connect all aspects of the image serve to suggest the interdependence of each form, as well as to allow all the forms within the image to communicate with each other to achieve a balanced composition.
the divided circles in the image represent all dualities: light/dark, good/evil, night/day, earth/sky, sun/moon, and so on
the lines within these divided circles are meant to resemble the cowrie shell, which was an essential and powerful item found within the Midewiwin medicine bag to be used by shamans in different practices
I love this image because it makes me pause to think about connection in a new way. The animal in the image is connected to all other parts of the image, in a nature that is sacred to the buffalo. The buffalo in the image is connected to the earth as well as the sky, just as the buffalo must depend on the grass of earth for food and the rays of the sun to grow the grass. I really love Morrisseau’s style, and his ability to tell such beautiful stories through the visual arts. I think that Norval Morrisseau’s work was incredibly important for all of art and art history, because he pushed the boundaries of art in a way that challenged the status quo of his time. His revolutionary style and approach to art changed the Canadian art world tremendously, and his legacy continues to influence the art world today through his captivating paintings which share meaningful and valuable stories.
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