Uvanga/Self: Picturing Our Identity
An artist considers the power of self-portraiture in articulating identity to oneself and to the world. Featuring works from Nunavut and Nunavik, this essay highlights Inuit self-portraiture from the early 1960s to the present and spans formal, psychological and community portraits, offering a glimpse at the breadth of Inuit self-representation.
“Lots of times I look in the mirror and I draw myself.” — Jutai Toonoo
The mesmerizing, easy cool of Jutai Toonoo (1959–2015) stares back at you. The edges of his skull fade into a sea of red and spill over a blushing face, the dividing line between internal and external realities has temporarily dissipated. It is equal parts engaging and alarming. His dark, questioning and perhaps world-weary gaze commands your attention. His thoughts are free from the usual conformity and strict confines of what is expected, an intellect without a linear cage. Toonoo follows no rules. He is his own man, free to express what he wants. His bold, confident presence is palpable even on paper, maybe especially so, and you can’t help but feel the pull of his power.
The first time I saw Toonoo’s work, I could not look away. It completely obliterated my sense of what I thought I understood about Inuit art. Why had I thought, even as an Inuk woman, that Inuit art had to be a certain thing? Look a certain way? Why had I never before considered the concept of simple freedom of expression? Had I ever seen a self-portrait of an Inuit artist before? I couldn’t recall. Definitely not in this way. Not in this form—his black t-shirt casually modern, his slouching posture coolly rebelling against all the stereotypical notions of how an Inuk should look in a gallery space.
“I like faces,” the artist recounted in 2011. “Every face is different from the other, like snowflakes. I never run out. I am always inspired by a face. There’s so many faces out there, there is no limit to what I can do.” He explained that he often draws his own face or the face of his wife, because he felt he was not yet good enough and that he was uncertain that other subjects would like or agree with the outcome. For fear of upsetting the subject, or out of a pure necessity to be completely free to channel his raw emotions onto the page, Toonoo was often compelled to draw his own face—a face that now gazes back at observers in galleries and private collections around the world.
Like many artists, Toonoo spoke about feeling both free and imprisoned by his process and his career as an artist. He described delving deeply into his mind while working, blocking everything else in order to express what he was feeling. “It almost becomes a part of me, what I am putting on paper,” he has said. “It comes out of me and it gets transferred onto the paper, and sometimes it drains me and I have no energy left when I am done with a thing.” Pieces such as Self (2012) and Seeking Peace (2015) evidence a process through which Toonoo poured his entire being into the work, leaving
all of himself transferred onto the page, so much so that initially he literally hated the finished product, not because he didn’t like it, but because it took all his energy to create it.
When asked if he considered himself an Inuit artist or a Canadian artist and how he defines himself, Toonoo answered simply, “I don’t.” Leaning heavy over his drafting table, filling in the soft blue backdrop of what would later become Eskimo Tan (2010), wiping sweat from his brow, he continued, “This is just something I do. I think I am an artist, but then again I am not.” Laughter follows in quick bursts, like joyful segues into meditative, humble confessions. “I used to do it for the sake of art, but it became something else. It became something that I have to make a living with—feed my kids and please my wife.” Toonoo, a self-aware, sensitive observer of the world around him was not unaware of the weightiness, economic and otherwise, of his work.
The subject of self-portraiture is, potentially, a delicate subject when talking about Inuit art. A field, after all, that has for the past six decades been dominated and shaped by capital. For a very long time, it has been a source of income, an economy, a means to an end for many artists living and working in the Canadian North. This is not to say that Inuit artists, of past and present, don’t express themselves in true, autobiographical ways, but it complicates them.
In 1975, three artists from Inukjuak, Nunavik, QC, created, what are likely, the first formal self-portraits of Inuit artists. The bold stonecuts by Thomassie Echaluk (1935–2011), Daniel Inukpuk and Jobie Ohaituk were released in small print runs in black and white. Though rendered in each artist’s own, unique style, each work depicts an artist facing forward in a collared shirt with the top button unbuttoned. The catalogue introduction considers that just because an
Inuit artist “has never done a self portrait is no reason not to try.”
The catalogue goes on to indicate that the artists were encouraged by a visiting instructor to make the self-portraits, so the idea to represent themselves was not necessarily their own but perhaps an opportunity to test the market and see if, in the mid-1970s, a southern audience was interested in purchasing unadorned Inuit self-portraits. The records of how well the works sold are unavailable, but the fact that this experiment was never repeated might speak to their performance.
In the decades that followed artists continued to push back on the hungry aesthetic demands of a market fixated on an idealized, romantic notion of the North and its people to increasingly better results. These market desires have had an effect on how even we as Inuit think about Inuit art. I have come to think of the first time I saw Toonoo’s work as the moment I vividly let loose my vision of what Inuit art could be. And it can be anything of course. Toonoo put it simply: “It’s not just for the sake of being different . . . I think that’s why I don’t do the things older artists do, ’cause of our lifestyle today. It’s very different from what they went through.”
These changes in lifestyle and artistic output are a testament to how quickly our lives have changed in the past 60 years. This dichotomy of worlds, the radical shifts experienced by generations of Inuit, described by Alootook Ipellie (1951–2007) as a “cultural whiteout,” is what makes self-portraiture so important, so invaluable. And much like the Arctic storms we endure through the winter, some of these changes have been so powerful that “we are trapped and unable to move forward because we cannot see clearly where we are heading.” Our perspective from within the storm is the power we hold. Without Inuit artists expressing themselves and documenting their experiences, we risk looking at ourselves through a tourists lens or reading our stories from the murky, presumptive ink of a settler’s pen, and even the most earnest outsider cannot get it right.
Born in Nuvuqquq, a small hunting camp on Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island), Ipellie witnessed first hand “the death of nomadic life.” A provocative, political thinker, he was one of the first Inuit artists to begin rapping, both gently and violently, against the glass ceiling of what was both expected and accepted of Inuit artists. Soft spoken and described by some as one of the most unsung Inuit artists of modern times, Ipellie expresses in stark graphic, black-and-white imagery the difficult, disturbing and traumatic transition from a traditional life on the land to life in government-imposed settlements. His book Arctic Dreams and Nightmares (1993) is also the first published collection of short stories by an Inuit writer.
A fierce and incisive critic, Ipellie wrote in 2001, “Our society had to rely on another society to be a guide dog to our blind culture.” Blinded by the swift commodification and forced
I have come to think of the first time I saw Jutai Toonoo’s work as the moment I vividly let loose my vision of what Inuit art could be. And it can be anything of course. —
conversion to a society so vastly different from our ancient, sacred, self-sufficient ways there was almost no chance of survival. Presented before us was a seemingly fancy, trouble-free and prosperous life—we were inundated with a new language, a new religion, the introduction of a cash economy, houses, TVs, Hondas, Ski-Doos and guns. Ipellie’s ink drawing I, Crucified (c. 1992) confronts this violent, martyrdom of our selves and the crucifixion of our culture and leaves us to question, had we, as had Christ, willingly subjugated ourselves? And most pressingly, would there be a resurrection? More than 25 years on, Ipellie’s drawing continues to demand sustained, if uncomfortable, reflection on how far we have—or have not—come.
Our warp speed, culture clash progression from a not-sodistant, “ancient” nomadic life, illuminated by the warmth of the qulliq (oil lamp), to matchbox houses backlit by the blue-screen glow of Jerry Springer has been most famously documented by the incomparable and prolific work of three Inuit women artists spanning three generations: the great matriarch of Inuit art, Pitseolak Ashoona, CM, RCA (c. 1904–1983); her only daughter, the remarkable Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002); and of course Pootoogook’s own daughter, the enigmatic and dearly beloved Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), all of whom captured the specific visual language of their lives and generations.
Although few of her works are explicitly labelled as self-portraits, arguably all of Ashoona’s work was autobiographical. Like many artists of her generation, Ashoona placed herself, her family and her community into each piece, from depicting her early years in semi-nomadic hunting camps in the publication Pitseolak: Pictures Out of My Life (1971) to her clever commentary on the modern art market with The Critic (c. 1963). This latter vein of self-portraiture in particular, of the artist as artist, made way for both her daughter and granddaughter to experiment with depicting and ultimately seeing themselves as artists.
As both subject and recorder, self-portraiture gives artists complete control over what they want us, as viewers, to see, and this power in the hands of the right artist can reveal volumes of intimate information in a single frame. Author George Orwell wrote, “Autobiography is not to be trusted unless it reveals something disgraceful.” Napachie, not one to shy away from difficult subject matter, exposed the darker side of traditional life: spousal abuse, starvation, forced marriage, alcoholism and infanticide, ultimately setting the stage for the uncompromising work of her daughter. If Annie broke the ceiling, she was without a doubt standing on Napachie’s shoulders as she did it. And the cracks were long present.
In her work Napachie’s Attempted Abduction #1 (1997–98), she records a terrifying moment of having to fight for her dignity and survival while two men with disturbingly serene faces attempt to violently steal her away from her future husband. She writes in syllabics that she won the fight because she was terribly frightened, her future husband “just watching.” Napachie’s image and accompanying narrative reveal the desperate vulnerability of womanhood within camp life, exposing complex feelings of disappointment, fear and a near hopeless dependency on the unpredictable and often abusive men with whom they were immutably connected.
A third generation artist, profoundly inspired by her mother and grandmother, Annie Pootoogook skillfully reimagined their artistic legacies while documenting Inuit life as seen through her own eyes. “I only know today,” she famously noted. “I must draw what surrounds me.” Though the backdrops of Annie’s work are contemporary to her
— As both subject and recorder, self-portraiture gives artists complete control over what they want us, as viewers, to see.
generation, her experiences are often strikingly parallel in both tranquility and tragedy to those of her mother and grandmother.
Jamasee Pitseolak is another revolutionary example of someone who, feeling an innate sense of dissatisfaction with his work, moved away from conventional themes to do something different. “As great as traditional Inuit art is, and I am humbled to come from that background, as I grew older,” he has explained, “I was getting a sense of emptiness from my work and I wasn’t making any connection. There was a sense of dissatisfaction, so I started carving electric guitars. . . . The fulfillment started coming to me and it spoke to me that this is what I want to do.” 10 In more recent years, this personal and artistic confidence has led Pitseolak to explore self-representation in his work and, in the process, to bravely reveal something to us that is deeply traumatic. In a work from 2010, The Student, we are confronted with a distressing scene. 11 A young child sits in a bathtub, his terror and powerlessness conveyed through harsh, erratic diagonal lines. A vomitous green is smeared across the abuser’s eyes, chest and genitals as he approaches the young victim. The grotesque slashes of green make their mark across the page and end in succession over the helpless, vulnerable child. It’s as though Pitseolak is trying to eradicate this horrific memory, confessing the details swiftly. The pain is still so discernible, the execution so hurried and the trauma still so raw, it’s as though it must be drawn as quickly as possible to get it over with.
Pitseolak has said many times that he creates his artworks for himself; he’s “not doing it for anyone else.” 12 Therein lies the power of self-expression and the power of self-portraiture on a larger scale. When artists are truly free, though it may at times come at a significant cost, the outcome can dramatically shift how we see both them, ourselves and the world around us. When artists exorcise their demons or tell us their most intimate stories, when dissatisfaction leads the way or a relentless thought won’t let them rest until it’s been transferred onto the page, when they channel their raw emotions to manifest something from their inner world into the tangible, moving it from the unseen to the visible, they are sharing with us a glimpse into their relationship with a shape-shifting muse. When artists do this, not just for themselves but of themselves, without regard for the market or for what an audience might deem too dark or too heavy or too unlike what they’ve come to know, when an artist is free, you cannot help but feel the pull of their power.
Jutai Toonoo (1959–2015 Kinngait) — PREVIOUS SPREAD Self 2012Oil stick105.4 × 75.6 cmJobie Ohaituk(b. 1946 Inukjuak) Self-Portrait1975Stonecut28.3 × 36.2 cm
Alootook Ipellie (1951–2007 Iqaluit) — I, Crucifiedc. 1992Ink26.8 × 21 cm
Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002 Kinngait) — Napachie’s Attempted Abduction #11997–98Coloured pencil and ink 50.7 × 66.3 cm
Pitseolak Ashoona (c. 1904–1983 Kinngait) — TOPIn Summer There Were Always Very Big Mosquitoes 1970Felt-tip pen 68.6 × 53.5 cm
Jamasee Pitseolak (b. 1968 Kinngait) — BOTTOMThe Student 2010 Hand-painted, dry-point etching 80.1 × 111.8 cm