Aki Land

Morrisseau paints land, not landscapes.

Aki is the Ojibwe word for land. Land as a living entity, part of kinship ties, means more than a natural resource or possession. Landscapes, an important part of Eurocentric art traditions, are not a form that Morrisseau utilized in his artwork. Morrisseau’s artistic expressions conveyed Anishinaabe ways of knowing Aki as an active, living being that is interconnected with us all. Thunderbirds and the many living beings of the land and skies interconnect in these artworks.

Norval Morrisseau, Caribou, 1969.

From the start of his career, Morrisseau painted moose. This bull moose (mis-titled as a Caribou) has two loons living within it. The loon is one of the seven dodems of the clan system.

Morrisseau describes a dream that includes a moose. In the dream the Thunderbirds tell the artist:

That moose you saw is also life for it is strong, great, powerful, and healthy. It is yourself. Some parts of the moose will be in you to keep you and guard you all your life.

Legends of my People, 1965, p. 66.

Norval Morrisseau, The Moose Dream Legend, 1962.

This work was purchased at the opening of the 1962 exhibition at the Pollock Gallery.

    Norval Morrisseau, Migration, 1973.

    Stories of migration are central to Anishinaabe stories and Morrisseau painted scenes of migration often. The figures in this birchbark canoe are protected by sacred fish as the community moves from one camp to another to replenish the land.

    Saul Williams discusses family and the practice of migration.

    Artist Saul Williams explains that it was important for Anishinaabe communities to move with the seasons for food sources but also to ensure that a site didn't get overused and too dirty "like Toronto!"

    This image of the Thunderbird shows a horned medicine snake emerging from its mouth.

    Morrisseau was commissioned to make a series of works for Herbert T. Schwarz as illustrations for Windigo and Other Tales of the Ojibways (1969) but this drawing was not used in the book.

    The Thunderbird was to the Ojibwa Indian a great protector. The teeth represents his supernatural powers. This thunder is one of the most feared for he lives in the ends of the Earth, he had no body but wings, a beak set full of teeth and a huge eye–it was a male. It was sitting upon a nest made of Bones and Cedar branches seated upon a huge Egg it began to hatch and his offspring comes into the world reincarnated before it materializes he devours his own offstring in order no other Thunderbird might exist like himself but being fierce the Thunderbird gave to the Indian his Protection.

    Morrisseau describes the Thunderbird in a letter from Morrisseau to Jim Stevens: Stevens Archive_1_A2.

    Norval Morrisseau, Thunderbird, 1966.

    Norval Morrisseau, Thunderbird with Inner Spirit, 1978.

    Anishinaabe-kwe artist and curator Bonnie Devine points to how Morrisseau situates the Thunderbird in this painting by surrounding it by water on one side and land on the other in this composition so that it is centred within a womb of symbolic colours enclosed by aki and nebi.

    There’s a struggle going on here, but you can see that despite the battle, there are communication lines connecting the combatants. There is a balance always,” explains Devine. “This work expresses the notion that everything is in constant adjustment, exchange, and flow.

    Bonnie Devine, Interview, 2020. McMichael Gallery, Kleinberg, ON.

    This painting was completed late in Morrisseau’s career and includes a small cameo of himself on a scooter as by this point he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

    All the herbs in the forest are used by the Ojibway, as well as tree roots and barks. Small tobacco offerings were placed where a herb had been removed by some Indians who belonged to the medicine societies.

    Legends of My People, 1965, p. 51.

    Norval Morrisseau, Thunderbird and Canoe in Flight, Norval on Scooter, 1997.

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