Nebi Water

Morrisseau paints water or Nebi through stories about the sacredness of water as living beings. A spiritual force infuses these artworks.

Norval Morrisseau, Great Horned Medicine Snake, 1962.

Centuries ago…a horned serpent” gave the people “the sacred knowledge of several hundred kinds of medicine.

Legends of My People, 1965, p. 55.
This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023.

This painting was included in the 1962 exhibition at the Pollock Gallery and is an excellent example of an early formulation of Morrisseau’s storytelling vocabulary.

Morrisseau paints the interior body cavities of the bear and fish in a white ground to signal their sacredness. Both the fish and the bear are connected from their mouths through to their rears with a line that also articulates their relational sacred significance. Morrisseau includes a divided circle/sun motif, that is attached to the bear’s back. Morrisseau adds a series of short lines on the bear and fish to further convey their spiritual energy.

Norval Morrisseau, Bear and Lake Trout, 1962.

Norval Morrisseau, Interdependence, 1960.

Morrisseau expresses the interconnected and kinship ties between all water beings. A spirit figure is inserted into the fish to convey the sacredness of the relational interdependence the artist wants viewers to understand.


To an Indian a fish represents the human soul- one turns into a fish as the astral body journeys into the land of his supernatural totemic existence.

Morrisseau: Return to the House of Invention, Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1996, p. 118.
This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023.

Norval Morrisseau, Soul in Form of Fish Swimming the Cosmic Sea, 1979.

Norval Morrisseau, Merman Legend (Male Fish Spirit Embodying a Male Shaman), 1962.

Morrisseau paints Nepii-Naba several times in the 1960s and 1970s.

In his 1965 book Legend of my People Morrisseau relates a stories about merman and shaman traveling to caves and tunnels on Lake Nipigon.

In one story, Morrisseau explains that after mistakenly throwing a fishing spear at a merman in Lake Nipigon, a man “was pulled, body, and all into the water. He did not drown, but felt some power being forced into his body to enable him to breath; then he was taken on a journey to all the water caves and tunnels, to …all the offering rocks.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People,1965, p. 22.

This work of ink and marker on paperboard is a work of transformation, a theme found in much of Morrisseau's art. In this work, the artist captures a shaman's dream where the spiritual guide enters the body of a Merman or Nepii-Naba.

Norval Morrisseau, Shaman Dream [Embodying the Merman to a Journey to the Inland Soil (Lake Superior) Trout’s Spirits], 1975.

Norval Morrisseau, Nepii-Naba: Fish Woman of Two Seasons, 1970.

Nepii-Naba is a gender neutral figure that Morrisseau sometimes paints as female, sometimes as male, but other times gender is not ascribed.

Indians were spearing fish by torchlight when one Ojibway noticed at the bottom of the gravel a merman.

Norval Morrisseau, Legends of My People, 1965, p. 22

Norval Morrisseau, Nepii-Naba: The merman, 1973

    Norval Morrisseau, The Merman, 1968.

    The mermen brought good luck to those who offered them travel safely on all lakes and rivers by making the waters calm. It is said among the Ojibway that the water beings were very wise and powerful. They are men, women, and children and they live on fish...their name was Maymaygwaysiwuk.

    Legends of My People, p. 25-26.
    This quote by Norval Morrisseau is read by Logan Fiddler, Great-grandson of Norval Morrisseau, 2023.


    There’s lots of stories that are told in Ojibwe but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to draw them—that’s from my own self—my own idea what they look like.

    Norval Morrisseau: Return to the House of Invention, 1996, p. 92.

    This painting depicts Mikinaak in a network of social relations with the cosmos, represented through beings and energy lines.

    Mikinaak, or turtle is a being found on land and water. The turtle has the power to protect underwater beings from the thunderbirds.

    Corbiere & Migwans, Before and After the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes, 2013, p. 47.

    Norval Morrisseau, CREATION, c. 1965.

    Early on, Morrisseau used mostly tempera paints or gouache on birchbark or various kinds of paper and even hide. He also experimented with oil paints for a short time.

    Friend and now Morrisseau Estate Director Cory Dingle shared:

    One sunny day, we were quietly all working away and Norval Morrisseau spoke up and said to me : ‘Do you know why I don't paint in oil ? That's because they stink.’ He said he would do a few paintings and they took a long time to dry, and his little house would fill with noxious fumes. He explained how his house had bad heat and not really any insulation in the winter, so the oils almost never dried. He mentioned how very happy he was when he discovered acrylics.

    Correspondence with Cory Dingle, February 2024.

    Norval Morrisseau, Soul Fish, 1970.

    Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Trout, 1965.

    Morrisseau often painted sacred fish with complex colours and internal designs. In this work, Morrisseau paints this fish's egg sac in a sacred blue colour, offset by a copper-orange colour to visually transmit the sacredness of the fish.

    To the Indian, a fish represents the human soul– one turns into a fish as the astral body journeys into the land of his supernatural totemic existence.

    Norval Morrisseau: Return to the House of Invention, 1997, p. 118.

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