Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau subject of Regina professor's new book

University of Regina professor Carmen Robertson has written a book on the works of artist Norval Morrisseau and his portrayal in the media.

Revered Ontario painter was considered controversial by media during '60s

Carmen Robertson said the career of Norval Morrisseau was often overshadowed in the media by his personality and personal choices. (CBC)

Carmen Robertson says the relationship between acclaimed Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau and the media was a complicated one.

When Morrisseau was in the news, it was for his personality and struggle with alcohol instead of his art, and the stories were often exaggerated, said Robertson, an author and visual arts professor at the University of Regina. 

Mythologizing Norval Morrisseau: Art and the Colonial Narrative in the Canadian Media is the latest book by Robertson.

It looks at the media portrayal of Morrisseau during his time in the spotlight from the 1960s onward. 

The idea to write about Morrisseau first came to Robertson while she was in grad school working on her doctorate.

Robertson said Morrisseau, often referred to as the Picasso of the North, re-branded himself as a "shaman artist" which resulted in more media sympathy.

Robertson said Morrisseau — who's sometimes called the Picasso of the North —  created a new visual language, like cubism.

"That visual language is new and it's wholly Canadian in many ways," Robertson said in an interview with CBC Morning Edition host Sheila Coles.

Her work was originally intended to be written as regular art history, but she was unable to receive copyright approval to show his work due to ongoing litigation after his death in 2007 in Toronto.

As a result, she decided to go in a different direction and focus on the media's relationship with Morrisseau.

"What he should represent and what he represents are two different things," she said. 

Media narratives focus of book

"Morrisseau was frustrated," Robertson said of his feelings about how he was portrayed.

She added he was a complicated person who had "his issues" but it was his art that showed who he really was.

By the 1970s, Morrisseau became more confident in his interactions with the media.

Robertson said Morrisseau wanted to see fewer stories about him as a drunk who couldn't get his life together, and more of him as an Indigenous artist. 

After becoming fed up and granting fewer and fewer interviews, he "bared his soul" to an art critic, Robertson said. 

"He was going to take control of his message in the media," she added.

Morrisseau re-branded himself as a "shaman artist" which resulted in more media sympathy, according to Robertson. 

Recognition by National Gallery in 2004

Robertson said there is a discrepancy between the portrayal of non-Indigenous artists — who had similar issues as Morrisseau — by the press.

"Part of it was the time," she said of the political climate in the late 20th century.

Morrisseau's work wasn't displayed in the National Gallery until 2004, notes Robertson.

Before then, it was in an ethnographic gallery, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, she said.

Some of the themes explored in her new book have been examined by Robertson before. She is also the co-author of Seeing Red, an extensive examination of the media's negative portrayal of Aboriginal people from Canada's earliest days to the present.

Annie Pootoogook death discussed

Robertson sees parallels between the portrayal of Morrisseau then and the narrative following the death of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook. 

Pootoogook, 47, was found dead in Ottawa's Rideau River on Sept. 19.

"It's eerily similar, sadly, that she is constructed as someone who is drunk and fell in the river and 'Oh, that's the way it is,'" Robertson said, adding that it was the kind of thinking that surrounded Morrisseau for decades.

Robertson attributes the media portrayal to a colonial structure in place, but she has seen small changes.

"Until we kind of recognize the legacy of that, really authentically in Canada, it won't change completely."

Robertson will be hosting the launch of her book at the University of Regina on Thursday at 4:25 p.m CST.