This year the Venice Biennale, in its prestigious International Art Exhibition, is featuring the work of Kananginak Pootoogook of Cape Dorset, Baffin Island—the first time an Inuit artist has been so honoured.
Pootoogook, who died in 2010 at age seventy-five, studied art in Cape Dorset, where over a period of forty years he developed a distinctive body of work that combines “photographic” space and the traditions of Inuit art.
For much of the twentieth century, Inuit communities, like Indigenous peoples around the world, were often considered by tourists (and some anthropologists) to be features of the scenery, and, like the scenery, as legitimate subject matter “for the taking.” An early CPR promotion, for example, encouraged tourists to visit western Canada, where they could Kodak the Indians. On Baffin Island it was not unusual for white visitors to enter the homes of Inuit families without invitation in order to photograph them “as they really are.”
Many of Pootoogook’s images appropriate conventions of the snapshot. Some of them echo snapshots taken between 1940 and 1973 by his uncle Peter Pitseolak, who learned to operate a camera in the 1930s when he was recruited to take a picture of polar bear for a Kadlunak visitor too nervous to do it himself. (Pitseolak got the picture, after positioning a pal to stand by with a loaded rifle.)
Kananginak Pootoogook uses the “camera eye” as a starting point in many of his ink-and-coloured-pencil drawings; his vision, though, is not optical but optical-esque; the field of view is complicated by distortions of perspective, and several vanishing points might be seen to disrupt the single vision of the camera. At the same time, the vernacular sense of the snapshot is preserved and even intensified in the aura of the “personal” emanating from these images with their elements of whimsy and the “accidental” detail.
Since its invention in 1839, the camera has been a challenge to artists working in conventional media and has quickly colonized the artist’s function of representing the world at large, leading to a revision of ways of seeing and looking, in modes such as cubism, expressionism and abstraction. In the work displayed here, Kananginak Pootoogook reverses that process, as he allows his pencils to usurp the camera by co-opting and then distorting optical perspectives: we see “through” an imaginary viewfinder and also above, below and around that viewfinder—as well as reflexively: now we are looking back at the viewfinder.
Kananginak Pootoogook acknowledged the early influence of his uncle Peter Pitseolak, who taught himself darkroom work to avoid having to send the film south for processing (a round trip of up to a year); he perfected the technique of developing film in a snow house and exposing his negatives with a Coleman lamp. In 1947 he salvaged a red safelight and other equipment from the wreck of the supply ship RMS Nascopie. His archive of thousands of images, in the Canadian Museum of History, comprises an invaluable vernacular record of life on the land, in the camp and in the village.
The 57th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale runs until November 2017. More examples of the work of Kananginak Pootoogook selected for exhibition can be seen in the May 2017 issue of Canadian Art and on the Canadian Art website.