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Geist - - News - —Man­del­brot

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.

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