Alootook Ipel­lie: Walk­ing Both Sides of an In­vis­i­ble Bor­der


Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by Christine Lalonde

A cu­ra­tor re­flects on the first ma­jor solo ex­hi­bi­tion of the late graphic artist and his rel­a­tively un­known but vi­sion­ary work that hu­mor­ously cap­tured the ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences of a chang­ing north­ern land­scape.

Walk­ing Both Sides of an In­vis­i­ble Bor­der will be Alootook Ipel­lie’s (1951–2007) first ret­ro­spec­tive, and in fact the only ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion in a pub­lic gallery to fea­ture the artist to date. Com­ing just over a decade af­ter his un­timely death in 2007, this ex­hi­bi­tion, co-cu­rated by my­self, San­dra Dyck and Dr. Heather Iglo­liorte, brings to­gether the mul­ti­fac­eted as­pects of his tal­ent and will likely sur­prise even those who were close friends and fol­low­ers. As with ret­ro­spec­tives of the most wor­thy artists, the ex­hi­bi­tion clearly lays out the im­por­tant and rich legacy left to us by this sin­gu­lar tal­ent.

Given how widely Ipel­lie was known through­out Canada—in­clud­ing by so many in Ot­tawa—the United States and parts of Europe, this lack of ex­hi­bi­tion his­tory re­flects the par­tic­u­lar, one might even say pe­cu­liar, po­si­tion of the artist-au­thor in his life­time. Although Ipel­lie was an ac­tive part of the cir­cle of Inuit lead­ers who fought for and achieved Inuit land claims and rights in the 70s through to the 90s, he was not a politi­cian, nor was he in­volved di­rectly in ne­go­ti­a­tions for the cre­ation of Nu­navut. Rather, Ipel­lie was a pow­er­ful and quiet ob­server from the side­lines, with a strong voice that was able to reach Inuit and non-Inuit alike, speak­ing to press­ing, of­ten dif­fi­cult, is­sues through his vis­ual art and writ­ing.

Ipel­lie’s car­toons and ar­ti­cles brought an­other Inuit per­spec­tive into the crit­i­cal de­bates of the day, of­ten with an off­beat ironic hu­mour. Re­flect­ing on events as they oc­curred at the time, his images and writ­ings il­lu­mi­nate these is­sues far be­yond a strictly doc­u­men­tary sense. In ar­tic­u­lat­ing how po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions im­pacted, and con­tinue to im­pact, the ev­ery­day lives of Inuit, his work has an on­go­ing rel­e­vance that speaks as loudly and clearly to­day and re­veals Ipel­lie as a vi­sion­ary ahead of his time.

Like­wise within the art world, Ipel­lie held his ground on the pe­riph­ery. In his in­tro­duc­tion to Arc­tic Dreams and Nightmares (1993), Ipel­lie writes about how his art did not fit the mould of Inuit art­mak­ing that had been es­tab­lished through com­mu­nity co­op­er­a­tives and gov­ern­ment funded arts and crafts pro­grams, and how his work was

His work has an on­go­ing rel­e­vance that speaks as loudly and clearly to­day and re­veals Ipel­lie as a vi­sion­ary ahead of his time.

out­right re­jected by ex­perts in the Inuit art world at the time. 1 This un­for­tu­nate dis­missal is ev­i­denced by the fact that Ipel­lie’s art­works were not ac­quired by pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions that were ac­tively col­lect­ing Inuit art in Canada. To­day, how­ever, in the con­text of an in­creas­ing in­ter­est in Inuit art within con­tem­po­rary art spheres, Ipel­lie’s art is fi­nally re­ceiv­ing its due. The artist is be­ing rec­og­nized for break­ing through boundaries, and his con­tri­bu­tions to art and writ­ing are be­ing ap­pre­ci­ated at large. All this is to say, that Ipel­lie was an out­lier who cre­ated and sub­se­quently oc­cu­pied a unique space in Inuit art in Canada. Although widely known for each as­pect of his prac­tice, in­de­pen­dently, the com­plete scope of Ipel­lie’s work has never been seen in full mea­sure and re­mains largely un­known.

In pre­par­ing for the ex­hi­bi­tion, this pen­du­lum swing be­tween “known and un­known” was ev­i­dent in the ef­fort of lo­cat­ing art­work. While the ear­li­est car­toons, such as those pub­lished in Inuit Monthly and Inuit To­day, and the orig­i­nal boards for the se­rial comics Ice Box (1974–1982) and Nuna and Vut (1994–1997) were eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, as San­dra has pre­vi­ously noted, the chal­lenge was to lo­cate fin­ished draw­ings, as none were in pub­lic col­lec­tions. 2 How­ever, the re­sponse when con­tact­ing in­di­vid­u­als who knew the artist and col­lected his work has been deeply per­sonal and in­equitably re­spect­ful. This at­ti­tude is sim­i­larly re­flected in the quick re­sponse by the gal­leries that will host this ex­hi­bi­tion af­ter its in­au­gu­ral show­ing at the Car­leton Univer­sity Art Gallery (CUAG). 3

Over the past two years and through sev­eral work­ing ses­sions, San­dra, Heather and I, along with dili­gent stu­dents at CUAG, have sifted through the mas­sive cor­pus of Ipel­lie’s vis­ual and lit­er­ary archive. Our col­lec­tive cu­ra­to­rial ap­proach or­ga­nizes his art pro­duc­tion into three main bod­ies of work—early car­toons, se­rial comic strips, and draw­ings for lit­er­ary works—while not los­ing

sight of their in­ter­re­lat­ed­ness, as many were com­pleted si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The in­stal­la­tion of 75 art­works (a small per­cent­age of the whole) fol­lows these group­ings and in­cludes Ipel­lie’s lit­er­ary work, which like­wise can­not be con­sid­ered as sep­a­rate ex­pres­sion.

First, are the ear­li­est car­toons for mag­a­zines pub­lished by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami), the non-profit na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion that rep­re­sents all four of the Inuit re­gions. Mod­est in scale, the draw­ings none­the­less have clout in their com­men­tary on sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal events and the im­pact of col­o­niza­tion, and fore­grounded Ipel­lie’s abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate com­plex sub­jects in a few deft lines.

Ipel­lie’s reg­u­lar se­rial comic strips, most no­tably Ice Box and Nuna and Vut, are the sec­ond re­lated body of work. Cer­tainly not void of po­lit­i­cal or so­cial com­men­tary, their nar­ra­tive is cen­tred more broadly on the flux and flow ex­pe­ri­enced by Inuit from the

1950s and on­ward. That Ipel­lie him­self lived through the up­heaval and shifts ex­pe­ri­enced by Inuit fam­i­lies dur­ing the col­o­niza­tion of the North and was able to re­lay that his­tory with grit and an as­tute hu­mour is what gives these comic strips a weight that is not to be un­der­es­ti­mated.

Fi­nally, as much as images, words were a pri­mary mode of ex­pres­sion for Ipel­lie, and his writ­ten works func­tion as a con­sis­tent stream that runs be­hind years of draw­ing. In the car­toons and comic strips, his writ­ing takes the form of a di­a­logue be­tween char­ac­ters or con­ver­sa­tions that some­times in­cluded the artist him­self. It is re­ally in his book projects that im­age and word co­ex­ist side by side. As cu­ra­tors, we are ex­cited to have sev­eral of the orig­i­nal draw­ings for Pa­per Stays Put (1980), edited by Robin Gedalof, in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion and which will be seen in pub­lic for the first time in decades.

Ipel­lie’s most sig­nif­i­cant ac­com­plish­ment, his book Arc­tic Dreams and Nightmares, opens this third part of the ex­hi­bi­tion. Seam­lessly weav­ing his vis­ual art and sto­ry­telling, bound to­gether through his imag­i­na­tion, these are the most elab­o­rate and in­tense draw­ings in the ex­hi­bi­tion in ev­ery sense. While writ­ing these notes, I pulled out my copy of the book to reread the in­tro­duc­tion and was quickly cap­tured (a choice of word that would have amused Ipel­lie) by the com­pelling images, both vis­ual and writ­ten. I had no choice but to read, en­thralled, to the end of the book. In this se­ries of draw­ings, the power of his imag­i­na­tion is un­de­ni­able and in­escapable.

The ex­hi­bi­tion closes with a se­lec­tion of works from Ipel­lie’s last solo show in 2007 at Gallery 7A in Ot­tawa.

It has been a privilege for our cu­ra­to­rial team to gather to­gether these far-flung works from in­di­vid­u­als and col­lec­tions alike in or­der to pay trib­ute to an artist whose in­tri­cate im­agery, re­gard­less of me­dia, de­scribe a pe­riod in Inuit life with sharp wit, gen­tle hu­mour and hard-won wis­dom.


1 Alootook Ipel­lie, “In­tro­duc­tion,” in Arc­tic Dreams and Nightmares (Pen­tic­ton: They­tus Books, 1993): xvi–xvii.

2 “High­lights,” Inuit Art Quar­terly 31, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 14.

3 Walk­ing Both Sides of an In­vis­i­ble Bor­der will travel to the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence Univer­sity in Can­ton, New York, the Nu­natta Su­nakku­taan­git Mu­seum in Iqaluit, NU, the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton and Gallery 1C03 at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg in Man­i­toba through­out 2019 and 2020.


Alootook Ipel­lie (1951–2007 Iqaluit) —Nuna and Vut (panel from se­rial comic strip)1994Ink on il­lus­tra­tion board 25.4 × 38.1 cm

Cover of Get­ting the Most Out of Your Tele­phone in the North (1977), de­signed by Alootook Ipel­lie, pub­lished by Bell Canada in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami)

RIGHTNu­navut Wants You poster, de­signed by Alootook Ipel­lie, pub­lished by the Nu­navut Con­sti­tu­tional Fo­rum in 1987

LEFTYes Nu­navut poster, de­signed by AlootookIpel­lie, pub­lished by the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada Nu­navut Plebiscite Com­mit­tee in 1982

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