Alootook Ipellie: Walking Both Sides of an Invisible Border
SEPTEMBER 17–DECEMBER 9, 2018 OTTAWA, ON
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