Inuit Art Quarterly
Katherine Takpannie’s intimate self-portraits and expansive scenes reveal the nuances of urban Inuit life.
“I just think women are so beautiful and so majestic, and I love to capture that,” explains Ottawa-based photographer Katherine Takpannie during a recent phone conversation from her home. The pull that Takpannie feels towards her subjects is evident in the intimate and expansive portraits she takes from behind the lens. In particular, her series of reclining, languid women posed nude in the landscape, with their backs turned to the viewer, are treated with a palpable sense of care. These intimate moments of access and refusal are in stark contrast to the many depictions of the female nude, typically oriented for male consumption, across Western art histories.
In another photograph, Takpannie walks through a snowy landscape, surrounded by dense plumes of crimson-coloured smoke emanating out of a black canister. She raises the vessel in her left hand as the tinted haze envelops much of her torso and head, masking her identity, with only her long dark hair visible. With a slim black dress and fishnet tights, she appears impervious to the cool temperatures that leave a thick layer of snow blanketing the ground and gives the rushing stream to her left, a detectably icy chill.
Takpannie’s visual language expands out from portraiture to include playful urban scenes and landscapes as well as incorporating more honest depictions of daily experiences—both remarkable and routine. In Moments to reflect, I can take a few (2017), two young Inuit stand at the sun-bathed opening of a derelict building covered in graffiti. Each looks out toward the world beyond, their bodies casting long shadows over the pockmarked floor. Capturing a moment of transitionary stillness, it’s an evocative image. The man in the foreground holds a beer, while the young woman to his left stretches her leg out onto the lip of the opening. She stares down towards her own body with a slight smirk on her face, indicating her awareness of having her photograph taken. “At first, some of my friends hated when I took their photos all the time,” Takpannie recalls. But now when Facebook prompts them of past memories, the moments her photographs capture bring a deep sense of nostalgia for the past.
Moments to reflect is a favourite of the artist’s as it conveys how “Inuit live in a contemporary world. . . . There are a lot of Canadians that still have dated conceptions of Inuit and how we live.” As an urban
Inuk herself, a central focus for Takpannie is revealing the complexities and nuances of urban Inuit life. Breaking with preconceived notions of what it means to be Inuit, she documents friends scaling buildings, watching the sunset or relaxing on a park bench, sharing a drink. During our call, she cites the influence of artist and family friend Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016) and her ability to visually register contemporary moments of Inuit life, particularly those that move from the quotidian to the spiritual to obliquely referencing the continued impacts of colonization on Inuit communities.
Takpannie’s ease in discussing the contours of Inuit cultural identity and her positions on contemporary political issues seems to have been sharpened by her completion of Nunavut Sivuniksavut, a college program that provides Inuit youth with cultural and academic learning experiences. Attending NS gave Takpannie more pride in her Inuit identity. As she describes, “being an urban Inuk, growing up not being able to live on the land and participate in traditional activities such as hunting and fishing, not being able to speak the language, it does something to your self-worth. Going to NS brought me back to my culture, and I have a lot more pride about being Inuk.”
From her photographs of a pro-sealing rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa being exhibited in the Art Gallery of Guelph’s exhibition Getting Under Our Skin (2018) to three of her works being acquired by the City of Ottawa Art Collection last year, the momentum is growing for Takpannie. Since becoming pregnant, she has also begun to turn the camera more toward herself. “I want to preserve these moments of growing life and how beautiful that can be.” Similar to Pootoogook, Takpannie’s images index the complexity of moving through the world. And I, for one, look forward to seeing how she continues to draw out the beauty from even the smallest aspects of life.
As an urban Inuk herself, a central focus for Takpannie is revealing the complexities and nuances of urban Inuit life.