Uvanga/Self: Pic­tur­ing Our Iden­tity

Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by Ad­ina Tar­ra­lik Duffy

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

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