On an exhibit wall hangs an enormous painting, bright with vivid blues and greens and a setting sun like a yellow cat eye. Petroglyphic creatures float across the composition as if pulled from a lucid dream. An art curator approaches this $25k Norval Morrisseau (aka Copper Thunderbird) painting and, with a sloppy can of paint and a big bristled brush, slashes a giant red X across the canvas. “Someone made this painting a lie,” he says. “Someone put Norval’s name on it. Copper Thunderbird… It’s not the truth.”
This occurs in the opening minutes of Jamie Kastner’s brilliant, under-the-radar 2019 documentary, There Are No Fakes. It is a dark dive into a shadowy, exploitative art world—a tangled tale about how greed corrupts beauty—and the power of the privileged eye, be that eye a curator, a critic, a buyer, or a camera.
Norval Morrisseau is a Canadian icon. He was an Anishinaabe artist from Canada’s Bingwi First Nation. They nicknamed him the “Picasso of the North” (Picasso himself was reputed to have been a fan). Morrisseau’s 1962 exhibition was the first time an indigenous artist had a commercial exhibition anywhere, a major accomplishment, given that gatekeepers in the elitist high art world so often scoff and sideline such artists as “outsider” or “folk”. Because Morrisseau was one of the first indigenous artists to break through these barriers, he had “huge significance” and was “a trailblazer”, says Greg Hill of the National Gallery of Canada in his interview with Kastner. “He’s one of our most successful indigenous artists ever. His significance expands globally.”
So when the existence of not just one, nor a dozen, nor a hundred—but possibly thousands—of fake Morrisseaus are discovered, Kastner turns his documentarian’s lens to the controversy in what he and we expect will be a clear-cut art world whodunit. What he ends up filming, however, unearths a much darker, tragic story rooted in the deep sociological scars of Canada’s relationship with its indigenous population.
Kastner hints at the twists to come in the opening moments of There Are No Fakes with an expansive aerial shot that pans across a muted white, rural icescape. This is a cold, desolate place, empty and poverty-stricken: the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek reserve in Northwestern Ontario. It is the birthplace and childhood home of Morrisseau, and it stands in stark contrast to the posh, chic galleries that color the sidewalks of Toronto and Montreal, where Morrisseau’s art is sold and the scandal unfolds.
Kastner, the documentarian behind 2012’s The Secret Disco Revolution, makes a Holmesian magnifying glass of his camera lens—dissecting forgeries and untangling a Gordian knot of lawsuits, defamations, and left-field idiosyncrasies; for example, how did the Barenaked Ladies’ Kevin Hearn somehow get looped into this hornet’s nest?
There Are No Fakes begins with a clear, simple thesis: follow a trail of clues, uproot the forger, and record a satisfactory comeuppance. But when the mid-act twist slaps both the filmmaker and viewers with the shocking identities of the forgers, the documentary becomes much more than a quirky mystery. It is the story of how one artist’s success in (and subsequent abandonment by) the elite art world devolved into an exploitative criminal enterprise in which the forgers are more victims than villains.
Are There Fakes?
Hearn—with an affable smile and gray-slicked hair—cocks an eyebrow and seems mostly befuddled as he gives the opening interview and kicks off the mystery at the beginning of There Are No Fakes. Hearn buys a Morrisseau painting at a reputable art gallery. The canvas depicts a coil of snakes set against green. Hearn later suspects the painting is a forgery and sues the gallery—ushering Hearn and the filmmaker into the rat’s nest peopled by unscrupulous art world buyers and sellers, many of whom demonize anyone who contends that their Morrisseaus are fake Copper Thunderbirds because it will cut into their profits.
Because Morrisseau’s artwork has not only been monetized but the authenticity of his work politicized, truth descends into a secondary, inconsequential byproduct. As poet and essayist Adrienne Rich would say in her geocritical essay, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location”, “Much of what is narrowly termed ‘politics’ seems to rest on a longing for certainty even at the cost of honesty.” This is what makes There Are No Fakes so ambitious; Kastner searches for both certainly and honesty in a world in which neither, it seems, exists.
There Are No Fakes digs deep into events from the 1990s, when the Canadian art market was flooded with these thousands of fake Copper Thunderbirds. The collectors and gallery owners who bought these paintings for cheap (all white men) sell them for a fortune and maintain that none are fake. The most notorious (and only the second or third most villainous person presented in the film) is Jim White, who owns more contested Morrisseaus than anyone else in the country. Through Kastner’s comprehensive interviews, White and other sellers like him openly, brazenly admit they will intimidate and slander anyone who says the forgeries exist at all. Morrisseau’s apprentice and other art experts are among White’s favorite targets.
“I wish him [White] the worst,” says the apprentice.
The discussion surrounding Morrisseau’s work becomes a circus. In “Ways of Seeing” critic and artist John Berger asks an important question, the question this documentary attempts to unroot: “Who uses [art] for what purpose?” Art buyers’ motivation “touches upon questions of copyright for reproduction, the ownership of art presses and publishers, and the total policy of public art galleries and museums.” Berger would have a field day with the chaotic lawsuits and claims of authenticity, originality, and ownership regarding Morrisseau’s art in There Are No Fakes. Kastner expertly dips and dodges through these rollercoaster loops, examining them from all perspectives and attempting to lay them out in a cohesive narrative line.
The lawsuits between buyers, gallery owners, art historians, and Barenaked Ladies guitarist Hearn (who for the most part stands gawk-mouthed amidst the chaos, describing himself as in way over his head)—all of it finally unravels when There Are No Fakes flies us to the Bingwi reserve and discovers the truth amidst crimes buried in the darkest shadows of a community ravaged.
Kastner reveals the fake paintings’ incubus not as the end point of an investigation, but merely the first rippling wave in a raging tsunami to come. The first forger was Morrisseau’s half-brother, Wolf. Artist Ritchie Sinclair explains in his article “There Are No Fakes: Beyond the Money” that Wolf “lied, stole and leeched off his brother. [Norval] felt sorry for him and was forgiving of his indiscretions. Wolf… learned how to steal and leech off others simply by using his famous brother’s name to trick them.”
Eventually, Wolf stopped painting forgeries, and the grift was taken up by a white man named Gary Lamont—a violent, sexual predator, thug, and drug lord. Lamont preyed upon susceptible indigenous youth, including Morrisseau’s nephew, Benji. Benji and the other victims were raped and sweatshop forced to paint for Lamont’s forgery factory; he paid these underage laborers with drug money.
The redemptive climax of Kastner’s narrative is not, then, a shocking reveal of the forgers’ identities. It is instead the decision of the forgers and other assault survivors to denounce their assaulter. They appear in court to serve as witnesses, to come forward with their stories and confirm that it was they who painted the fake Copper Thunderbirds while under duress.
But of course, as expected, as it goes for so many assault survivors who come forward with the truth, after the trial, White and the other art buyers denounce them as liars. It’s all a conspiracy, the buyers say, and “there are no fakes”.
Berger says that “works of art are discussed and presented as though they are holy relics… they are declared art when their line of descent can be certified.” This sums up why White decries the testimony of the assault survivors. If the authenticity of his original Morrisseaus are not only unverified, but flat-out refuted, then his artworks—which were painted by either Wolf Morrisseau or Bingwi survivors—are now totally worthless.
Value depends upon rarity. With thousands of fake Morrisseau’s unidentified in the art market, one expert bemoans that the value of all Morrisseau’s work is now watered down and under suspicion. Morrisseau’s paintings are no longer rare; there are thousands out there—but are they real? Originals?
The rarity question is complicated by the unverified authenticity of pieces without a line of certified descent. So a prospective art buyer will think twice when they see a Morrisseau on a gallery wall. Even if they like the subject matter, even if it interests them or is aesthetically appealing, they will hesitate to purchase. This is because, as Berger puts it, “…its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is.”