The Mystification of Morrisseau
Berger writes a lot about the “mystification” of original paintings in the art world, which also applies to Kastner’s investigation in There Are No Fakes. Morrisseau and his art are deified within both the Canadian art market and the documentary itself.
In the 1960s and ’70s, when much of Morrisseau’s art was being exhibited, he spoke often of the thematic indigenous spirituality in his pieces. Kastner includes an audio interview from before Morrisseau’s death in which he says, “Many times people come up to me and say, ‘Norval, I thank you very much for healing me. What did it? That certain painting. It will be a force that will protect whatever situation you’re in.’”
Art critic and curator Lucy Lippard would say that Morrisseau’s paintings “see with the heart”. They are bright depictions of indigenous mythological dreamscapes. They appeal to a wide swath of viewers because they are colorful, festive, and touch upon symbology. Morrisseau’s work is often described in deeply religious, spiritual, and mythological ways.
This spills onto Morrisseau himself; others portray him as an iconic soothsayer, or as Sinclair puts it, “an intuitive seer who knew Spirit. Using symbol, story and soul, he fashioned a profound visual record to assist humanity going forward… The charge in an authentic Morrisseau painting re-ignites latent ancestral energies which inspire creative awakening in those open to the experience.”
The spiritual themes in Morrisseau’s work—he is often titled the Grand Shaman of the Anishinaabe —is capitalized on by White and the men who sell Lamont’s fake paintings. They expound about “spiritual energy” put forth from their fake Copper Thunderbirds, saying that energy attests to authenticity. The energy one gets from looking at their painting makes it, according to the sellers, an irrefutable fact that it was shaman Morrisseau who must have painted them.
Berger would have thoughts about claims like White’s, particularly when he expounds upon the spiritual energy a viewer might feel only when looking upon an original Morrisseau. But White’s motives are capitalistic: he personally profits off of a supposed spiritual awakening that comes with a high price tag. The “impressiveness is not because of what it shows—not because of the meaning of its image,” says Berger. “It has become impressive, mysterious, because of its market value.”
An Indigenous Legacy in a White World
Fake Copper Thunderbird sellers like White and the rest of his ilk are people who, Kastner’s documentary decries, have been poisoning Morrisseau’s legacy. But as reprehensible and money-hungry as White’s actions might be, the idea that Morrisseau has a “legacy” at all hinges on what Berger calls “the final empty claim for the continuing values of oligarchic, undemocratic culture.”
Morrisseau himself never profited from his own legacy. He suffered from drug addiction, was in and out of jail, and was homeless for a time. He died poor and forgotten until the final few years of his life. His family and heirs have likewise seen no profits from this supposed legacy. They are trapped by the dangers of the Bingwi reserve, where men like Lamont prey upon the young and desperate, including Morrisseau’s nephew Benji.
So who does the legacy serve? What’s the point of having a legacy at all if the person it centers on sees no reward, not for himself or his heirs? There Are No Fakes asks these complicated questions—questions that, unlike a typical whodunit art mystery, have no clear-cut answers. Art that reflects a community—as Morrisseau’s art reflects the Bingwi community he was born to—must not only be represented and included, but its successes must also circle back to the community from which it came. Lippard says that “nothing that excludes the places of people of color, women, lesbians, gays, or working people can be called inclusive, universal or healing. Before we can find the whole, we must know and respect all the parts.”
In There Are No Fakes’ search for certainty and truth, Kastner often drives home the point that the people benefitting the most from Morrisseau’s legacy are all born of white privilege. White and his cohort sell knock-off Copper Thunderbirds to the rich and famous, prospective buyers like Hearn. Not only does Hearn win his lawsuit and is awarded $60K, but he belongs to a largely white upper class that collects art as a financial investment.
Meanwhile, the historians and scholars who are purportedly standing up for the Morrisseau legacy have a dog in the fight, too: they are profiting from the paintings by installing Morrisseau’s work in the National Museum and other exhibits that bring in paying customers. They are elevating their own prestige within the art world. Even Kastner, the documentarian himself, the man behind the camera, is a white man utilizing the controversy of the Morrisseau lawsuits to create a film that punches up a resume and is showcased in film festivals and galleries—an irony Kastner is clearly aware of.
All of the people in the documentary who are benefitting from Morrisseau’s legacy are white men. None of Morrisseau’s actual family or indigenous community have risen out of poverty. They are like a bumble bee, which Rich uses as a metaphor to describe a population—be they women or indigenous or any marginalized group—that must navigate a world run by white men. “It [a trapped bumble bee] is looking for what it needs, just as I am, and, like me, it has gotten trapped in a place where it cannot fulfill its own life.”
The only financial gain the Bingwi reserve sees comes from, as Morrisseau’s brother Wolf discovered, selling art knock-offs. Yet even that grift does not provide an escape from the trap. Because tragically, the person in their community who profits the most from the fake painting factory is yet another white man: the mastermind, the criminal, the sexual predator… Lamont.
The heartbreaking story of the crimes that took place at the Bingwi reserve are just a small sampling of the societal harm done to indigenous populations in Canada. These social ills spawned not only Morrisseau’s art, but his tragic life and the continued strife of his Nation. Yet the documentary’s buyers, sellers, and experts don’t discuss any of this, an injustice Kastner wraps in irony.
Rich says that “all privilege is ignorant at the core.” The privileged don’t see. They don’t bother to look. Because is it in their best interest to do so? What would happen if they looked? Would they still be able to profit from a legacy built upon white privilege, racism, and exclusion?
“We only see what we look at,” says Berger. “To look is an act of choice.” In There Are No Fakes, the camera lens is the eye that chooses to look.
“I just wanted to buy a painting really,” says Hearn. He sits at a piano and trills out a few melancholy notes. “I feel in this story I’m just a little Alice in Wonderland. I went through the little door and it’s just opened up into this whole Wow.” He sighs, confounded. “I just wanted to buy a painting, really.”
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. British Broadcasting Corp. and Penguin Books. 1972. pp. 1-34.
Lippard, Lucy R. “Places with a Present”. The Lure of the Local. The New Press. 1998. pp. 276-292.
Morrisseau, Norval. “Observations of the Astral World“. 1994. Art Canada Institute, Toronto.
Redbird, Duke and Jacobsen, Henning. The Paradox of Norval Morrisseau. NFB. Henning Jacobsen Productions Limited. Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. 1974.
Rich, Adrienne. “Notes toward a Politics of Location”. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. W.W. Norton. 2001. pp. 62-82.
Robertson, Carmen. “Norval Morrisseau: Life & Work”. Art Canada Institute. Accessed 28 October 2020.
Sinclair, Ritchie. “There are No Fakes: Beyond the Money”. Norval Morrisseau Legal. 14 June 2019. Accessed 28 October 2020.
Kastner, Jamie. There Are No Fakes. Cave 7 Productions. 2019.
Wallis, Adam. “Barenaked Ladies guitarist awarded $60K after buying fake painting”. Global News. 4 September 2019. Accessed 28 October 2020.