Remembering Annie Pootoogook
Struggling with the question of how best to represent the legacy of trailblazing Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, who died tragically in Ottawa in 2016, curator Nancy Campbell turned to family, friends and fellow artists in Cape Dorset, Nunavut.
Campbell had known Pootoogook and her work for years, having curated her influential solo exhibition at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery in 2006. “I wanted to make sure I had the community’s input,” she says. “When I was up there last February, I asked a lot of people ‘when you think of an exhibition that shows what Annie did, what would you like to see?’”
Throughout Canada, and internationally, Annie Pootoogook was responsible for a seismic shift in the way Inuit art is perceived. The young artist offered a candid, unfiltered and unembellished view of life in the North, where aspects of traditional Inuit culture coexist with Nintendo consoles, frozen foods and the televised visage of Dr. Phil, and where modern problems such as alcoholism and domestic abuse have touched many lives.
This latter set of images had a particularly powerful impact outside the North. The drawings were “so well publicized that, unfortunately, Annie had become a kind of poster girl for northern trauma,” says Campbell. Back in her hometown, however, people did not want these themes to overwhelm the rest of Pootoogook’s vision.
“They wanted her to be remembered not only for her arresting images depicting the darker side of community life, but also the beautiful things about Cape Dorset: the sense of community, the camping, the family, the day-to-day realities.”
This desire to embrace the full range of Pootoogook’s subject matter guided the selection of works for Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice, on view at the McMichael Art Collection in Kleinberg, Ontario, until February 2018. The first retrospective of Pootoogook’s works since her untimely death, this exhibition of fifty-seven drawings is therefore “a bit more optimistic than others you may have seen,” says Campbell.
With the exception of one room of later works, the bulk of the drawings in the exhibition were produced in the early 2000s, when Pootoogook still lived in Cape Dorset, and before she won the prestigious Sobey Art Award in 2006 and gained international exposure through the Montreal Biennale and Europe’s Documenta exhibition.
There is also a selection of works by five contemporaries from the early days at the Cape Dorset artists’ co-op where Pootoogook worked: her cousins Shuvinai Ashoona and Siassie Kenneally, her friends Itee Pootoogook and Jutai Toonoo, and Inuit elder Ohotaq Mikkigak. Their inclusion, says Campbell, reflects “the collegiality in the studio and the way people riff back and forth when they are working side-by-side.”
Growing up in a family of celebrated artists, Annie Pootoogook watched her grandmother, the renowned artist Pitseolak Ashoona, as she worked. Her parents, Napachie and Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, were also well-known artists.
Yet the younger Pootoogook’s contribution required her to turn away from traditional Inuit artists’ preoccupations with the landscape and animals of the North. Instead, she chose an unsentimental representation of Inuit life in contemporary northern communities. Although imported culture and technologies have dramatically changed Inuit life, “the beautiful thing about the North is that they have kept so many traditions — community traditions, food, language — very much intact,” says Campbell. “What Annie did so beautifully with these simple pencil crayon drawings is to make a web of what is still valued and unique in the North and what is changing so rapidly.” In the process, Campbell adds, “she opened the doors for other Inuit artists” to enter the mainstream contemporary art world and “allowed people in the south to have a more cohesive understanding of what life in the North is really like.”
One drawing that captures the hybrid reality of the contemporary North is Bringing Home Food. It depicts a woman bringing home a bag of groceries — as the CBC television news plays in the background — and two men carrying a seal they will soon prepare for dinner.
“Annie was known for [depicting] the interiors of houses in Cape Dorset,” explains Campbell. “She would put in a lot of small details: people kicking off their boots, people watching tv, a little vase of flowers, a clock, the light-switches, all of which say, ‘we don’t live in ice houses anymore.’ But there is always a nod to traditional foods or traditional lifestyles alongside everything that’s contemporary.”
In a similar way, Myself in Scotland centres on “this interesting pull between being Inuit and being in the contemporary world.” Pootoogook portrays herself during her Glennfiddich residency in Scotland wearing a traditional Inuit necklace. That her hair is blowing straight up likely represents her sense of unease at being so far outside her own culture, says Campbell. Although she never spoke with the artist about this specific work, “I did speak with her about Scotland and I knew it was an overwhelming experience for her.”
In September 2016, Pootoogook was found dead in Ottawa’s Rideau River. Still, the tragic circumstances of her death cannot diminish her revolutionary impact. In Canadian Art magazine, Inuk art historian and curator Heather Igloriorte wrote that Annie Pootoogook “challenged viewers’ expectations of igloos and dog teams and instead revealed our ‘matchbox houses’… [and] the Northern Shore with its refrigerators lined with freezer-burned frozen dinners.”
ANNIE POOTOOGOOK: CUTTING ICE is on view at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection until February 11, 2018. Annie Pootoogook’s work is also on view at the National Gallery of Canada as part of Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present.