In September 1999, legendary Ojibwe artist and Woodlands School pioneer Norval Morrisseau, also known as Copper Thunderbird, made the trip to Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario to be presented with a sacred eagle feather by M’Chigeeng artist Blair Debassige. Morrisseau, who was born on 14 March 1932 at Sand Point (now called Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek) near Beardmore, Ontario, was already in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease and confined to a wheel chair. He hoped the island’s pure air and sacred nature would improve his condition. After the ceremony at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M’Chigeeng, Morrisseau was photographed with Debassige and numerous others and surrounded by his paintings. It was, it seemed, a joyous occasion; Morrisseau himself claimed it was one of the most important days of his life.
By that time, Norval Morrisseau was a well-regarded and transformative figure in both Aboriginal and Canadian art. Bridging the gap between First Nations art practices and mainstream modernist art, his work was presented in the collections of such institutions as the National Gallery of Canada. Morrisseau’s paintings — depicting brightly coloured and distinct, organic shapes — have the quality of visions, perhaps an inheritance from his shaman grandfather, Moses “Potan” Nanakonagos. Untitled (Shaman) (1971), for instance, has a figure holding a staff and donning an elaborate headdress, black hair flowing behind. The figure is in profile, gazing fiercely with a proud, uplifted face, his ceremonial accoutrements painted in dense blue and black — the unpainted background retains an earthy hue. In Thunderbird with Inner Spirit (1978), on the other hand, the mythic thunderbird is assembled from blue and purple shapes and floats inside an orange womb — the background is, on one side, a lush, vegetal green, on the other a dark, twilight blue. Untitled (Shaman Traveller to Other Worlds for Blessings), painted circa 1990, has the direct simplicity of medieval paintings or even ancient rock drawings: a winged shaman with a thunderbird headdress sails toward a sunburst inside a light-suffused womb. Morrisseau’s work not only makes use of traditional Aboriginal symbols in a slightly different context; he offers them, and perhaps us, the possibility of rebirth.
The celebration on Manitoulin Island in 1999 may, however, have been tarnished. Some of the paintings with which Morrisseau and others were photographed were not, according to Morrisseau himself, authentic. Morrisseau subsequently fought to expose the legion forgers of his work, but in the years following his death in 2007, his legacy has been clouded by persistent allegations of forgery. That Morrisseau’s work, which garners prices into the tens of thousands of dollars, is vulnerable to forgery should come as no surprise. Yet, as a self-taught artist who worked with basic, readily available materials (store-bought acrylic paint on paper and canvas), his distinction rests less in his technique or his skill as a draughtsman or painter than in the singularity and startling power of his visions. While no specific allegation of forgery has yet to be proved, two high-profile collectors of Morrisseau’s work, Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn and concert tenor John McDermott, have both filed suit against Joseph Bertram McLeod, owner of Toronto’s Maslak McLeod Gallery, for knowingly or unknowingly selling them Morrisseau fakes. The suit further alleges that the paintings were created by a fraud ring located in Thunder Bay and headed by Gary Lamont, proprietor of an online art gallery called Woodland Art Gallery, in which Benjamin Morrisseau, Norval’s nephew, and Timothy Tait, a local First Nations artist, served as forgers. Again, none of these claims has been substantiated — in court or anywhere else — but they are by no means new and they are persistent.
Art forgery is as old as name artists. Ancient Romans forged the work of the even more ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles, and distinguished institutions such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles have been rocked by forgery scandals. In 1983, the Getty purchased a fake kouros boy (a nude statue of a boy common in Ancient Greek art), and in the early 1990s discovered that several fake Old Masters drawings, purchased for millions of dollars, had stood among their collection for years.
Forgery has impacted First Nations and Inuit artists in Canada on a smaller but more devastating scale. Fake Inuit and First Nations sculptures, masks, prints, drawings and painting are regularly sold to eager and naïve tourists across Canada. The alarming and largely unacknowledged frequency of the forgery of the work of Aboriginal artists is most likely due to a number of factors: the broad nostalgia many people have for what are perceived as traditional cultures and their equal ignorance of those cultures, and perhaps also the fact that Aboriginal communities have a history of creating disposable objects specifically for the tourist trade. In addition, Aboriginal communities lack a tradition of attributing art works to specific artists, and older artists of the first “crossover” wave such as Morrisseau did not evolve in an art system that is partly designed to protect the identity and authorship of artists. Younger figures such as Brian Jungen, who came of age in the mainstream art world, are far less vulnerable to forgery.
Another significant Canadian Aboriginal artist whose work has regularly shown up in trinket shops is Ojibwe artist Benjamin Chee Chee, who tragically ended his life at 32 on 14 March 1977. Chee Chee, like Morrisseau, was self-taught. He was known for his elegant renderings of animals in gouache and ink on paper. Chee Chee’s signature style was his long, undulating and tapering lines depicting, for instance, multiple geese vaulting upward in flight, the rising and falling lines intertwining one with the other. Chee Chee was a master at creating a delicate balance between turbulent motion and quiet, dream-like serenity. While Chee Chee remained closer to the furious dynamics of the natural world than Morrisseau (Morrisseau’s paintings occupy a mythic and inward realm), his animals, especially birds, retain an emblematic quality: they are, one senses, symbols of the processes of both the cosmos and the spirit. If Morrisseau’s works depict a shamanic spirit journey, Chee Chee’s suggest a shimmering and evanescent portal between the physical and the spiritual that we are invited to pass through.
Forgery is not just a financial problem for artists and their heirs and collectors, it is especially so for artists from vulnerable and historically oppressed cultures. It is a tragedy for the public at large, and for our evolving culture, to dilute the achievements of major artists and draw attention away from the nuances of their authentic work. For make no mistake, there is a difference between a Norval Morrisseau painting or a Benjamin Chee Chee drawing and a forgery made for money. Visionary art of this kind is about the nearly ineffable details — the arc of a line, the placement of a colour or a symbol — that give it transporting spiritual weight. And that, in the end, can’t be faked.