Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice
SEPTEMBER 2, 2017–FEBRUARY 11, 2018 KLEINBURG, ON
A curator reflects on the immense impact and lasting legacy of the groundbreaking, late graphic artist on the occasion of her first career retrospective.
It has been difficult for me to speak publicly about Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016) and thus, until the occasion of this exhibition, I had chosen to remain quiet, believing that ultimately her drawings would, over time, speak for her and tell her story. However, the arc of her exceptional life and pre-mature death captured public attention to such a degree that it has woven itself into the contemporary fabric of life in Canada today. The intricacies of Annie’s short 47 years speak both to possibility and heartbreak, the complex realities of truth and reconciliation, the richness of family and community and the depths of tragedy. In turn, her drawings depict a community in transition, one that respects its past and is negotiating its future.
I knew Annie. We worked together intensely in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, between 2004 and 2010. The time I spent with her altered my world view and taught me about the North and the importance of community. Annie was serious about her art, proud of her accomplishments and prolific in her creation. When I first saw her work, I was captivated by its clarity, astute composition and honesty. I strongly felt that Annie’s unique drawings should be seen by as many people as possible. As a curator, I worked collaboratively with a group of people that included friends, colleagues, the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (WBEC), Feheley Fine Arts, in Toronto, ON, and collectors of Annie’s early drawings in order to make that happen. This exhibition is a testament to the immense impact of Annie’s artistic vision and, in many ways, is the realization of that early impulse to share her work. I would also like to acknowledge
The directness of Annie’s imagery challenged both Southern viewers’ and her fellow artists’ expectations of what pictures of the North should look like.
the support of WBEC, Feheley Fine Arts and Annie’s friends and family in Kinngait. This project was conceived with their input and holds at its centre the people and wonderful things about community life in Kinngait, such as camping, feasting, hunting and family, that Annie loved.
Annie began drawing seriously in 1997 at WBEC’s Kinngait Studios, where she worked continuously until 2006 and during which she refined her singular ar tistic approach. Although some of her pictures show life on the land, Annie is perhaps best known for her charming and accurate interior scenes, such as getting ready for a date, eating country food, watching television or playing cards. She was also determined to reveal the difficult social, economic and physical realities of today’s North, including influences from the South, violence, substance abuse and a fractured social safety net. As a third-generation artist, Annie was raised with access to television and other media from the South, references of which appear in her drawings through depictions of Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil and Saddam Hussein. Some of her more controversial works boldly reveal the impacts of addiction and abuse in her life and in her community. Annie’s images of these social ills persist as raw and straightforward accounts.
Annie worked daily, alongside fellow artists Jutai Toonoo (1959–2015), Ohotaq Mikkigak (1936–2014) and her cousins Itee Pootoogook (1951–2014), Siassie Kenneally and Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA, all of whom were included in Cutting Ice. Annie’s fellow artists were both perplexed and fascinated by her personal approach and contemporary content. During the early 2000s the drawing studios were busy and a new energy was palpable. I was a regular observer in the room, which was astonishingly quiet. Often the only sound was the radio playing. Annie and her cohort riffed off each other and experimented with new media and approaches under the gentle suggestion of the co-op. If something appeared particularly popular with buyers, each would adapt it in their own way. Many began to draw what they saw, at times extracting an object from the composition and isolating it on the page. Some, such as Itee, used photographs for inspiration. They made larger drawings, tried oil stick and sought new content as seen in Marijuana (2013) by Jutai, an overhead composition of a potted plant, set against a pulsating red background, or Annie’s erotic pictures, including Making Love (2003–4) or Composition (Watching Porn on Television) (2005).
It took me a number of visits to Kinngait to gain the trust of the studio artists. Annie, in particular, was exceedingly evasive and private. She spoke about her drawings in vague terms, often denying that many of the stories were about her own life and were rather those of “someone she knew.” Sitting quietly in the studio for many hours, having lunch together, going for walks and being mindful of listening, rather than interpreting her work for her, was a worthwhile exercise and over time allowed Annie to tell the stories of her life on her own terms. The directness of Annie’s imagery challenged both Southern viewers’ and her fellow artists’ expectations of what pictures of the North should look like. The idyllic images of hunting
and other traditional activities that were characteristic of the earliest Inuit artworks available in the South represented a way of life that has subsided under the increasing pressures of globalization. Non-Inuit viewers often look at the art of Inuit with nostalgia, seeking in it a last glimpse of the disappearing natural world. As writer Sarah Milroy noted in a memorial piece about Annie in The Globe and Mail:
It may be a while before the true nature of [Annie]’s death is understood, and it is certainly not for us to say she should never have taken that wild ride through that world of art and media and commerce. She had her glory days, and when we look at the legacy of work she left behind, the pleasure and satisfaction she enjoyed in communicating about her Northern world is palpable.¹
Ultimately, Annie’s contribution to Canadian and Inuit art history is difficult to quantify. Her arresting images captured the world’s attention, cracking the glass ceiling and opening the door for other Inuit artists and their work to be included in discussions of contemporary art.
As the number of artists, curators, cultural sector workers, dealers, scholars and teachers advocating for Inuit art continues to grow, Annie’s work will serve to expand the conversation around Inuit art and its presence in, or absence from, our understanding of contemporary art in this country. Annie was, fundamentally, a narrator, and despite the pressures and preconceived ideas of what Inuit art is, her drawings will continue to help us rethink what art from the North can be. There is much to celebrate when looking at the possibilities Annie’s work has afforded us in thinking through Inuit art in Canada and the world in new ways. Thank you, Annie.²
1 Sarah Milroy, “Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook’s work revealed the connections between us,” The Globe and Mail, Friday, September 23, 2016.
2 Parts of this text will appear in the exhibition catalogue for the tenth edition of the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, Beautiful World Where Are You?
Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016 Kinngait) — Morning Routine 2003 Coloured pencil and ink 51 × 66 cm
Installation view of Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 2018
Annie Pootoogook Sculptor with Pipe 2003–4 Coloured pencil and ink 51 × 66 cm