The death, and life, of Annie Pootoogook
She broke ground for a generation of Inuit artists. A new exhibition of her work at the McMichael, and her tragic death last year, show how much more is broken
There’s a funereal sense to Cutting Ice, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s exhibition of the late Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook. It’s not intentional, though given the circumstances of her death, such a thing would be hard to avoid.
In the broad corridor that serves as the first gallery here, a floor-to-ceiling photograph puts on vivid display how we’d like to remember her: Smiling, if somewhat reluctantly, her soft features tightened in a playful expression of quiet amusement.
The image, bathed in warm light, belies the reality of Pootoogook’s final years and days. The show was not meant to be commemorative. It had already been planned and slotted when, last Sept. 19, her body was pulled from the Rideau River in Ottawa. She was 47.
Ottawa police initially said her death was not a homicide, though the investigation is ongoing and the circumstances of her passing remain unexplained. The one certainty is that Pootoogook, living in shelters and on the streets of Ottawa and Montreal for years, had been battling with addiction for almost a decade.
In 2006, Pootoogook won the second-ever Sobey Art Award and the $50,000 that came with it. Perhaps not coincidentally, her remarkably prolific production seemed to come to a halt shortly afterwards.
Though she lived another decade, only two of the more than 50 drawings here are dated later than 2006: one from 2009 and another from 2010.
For Nancy Campbell, an Inuit art specialist who curated the show for the McMichael, it’s a grim way to close a circle that she had helped to begin. In 2006, just before Pootoogook’s Sobey win, Campbell, then a curator at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, brought the artist south for the first time, for her first-ever museum exhibition.
The Power Plant show was alien in every way: Small, flat drawings in coloured pencil, laying out in crisp, simple lines scenes of the realities of everyday far-northern life. A sharply drawn box of Ritz crackers (a favourite northern snack) folded into her oeuvre as naturally as a couple lazing in bed, watching late-night blue movies.
I met Annie then at the Power Plant and was taken aback. Her work had little to do with the heady conceptualism that dominated contemporary art of the day, and was even less connected to southern expectations of a northern esthetic.
Inuit art, Campbell says dryly, “is art by an Inuit artist,” though perceptions to the contrary can perhaps be understood, if not entirely forgiven. For generations, the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, has employed Inuit artists to make traditional-looking prints and carvings under a craft mandate that could be reproduced and sold in the south.
Pootoogook, who began drawing at the collective in 1997, came to reject the co-op’s market mandate, picking up coloured pencils to depict northern life as she knew it.
Her work, whether a plain-spoken image of a seal being butchered on a kitchen floor for dinner or a person lazing in front of the television watching Dr. Phil, initially produced some unease at the co-op, which didn’t see the commercial potential in such frank depictions. Where the co-operative looked away, curators in the south did not, fastening on to Pootoogook’s determination to look through popular notions of an exotic north to the intimacy, however troubling, of the everyday.
As her notoriety grew — from the Power Plant to the Sobey in 2006, Pootoogook went on the next year to Documenta 12 in Germany, perhaps the world’s most prominent contemporary art showcase — the co-op’s leeriness shrunk and it began to encourage artists to step outside traditional practice.
Annie’s success was catalytic; her ideas and techniques became a fullblown movement.
In her footsteps, bona fide art stars have followed: Shuvinai Ashoona, her cousin, with her fantastical views of the northern land and sea; Itee Pootoogook; Jutai Toonoo and Siassie Kenneally all worked alongside Annie as the notion of Inuit art was being transformed into something in tune with the reality they lived.
Reality in the north, of course, contains hardly any of the mythic notions with which it was long associated and Pootoogook’s work was jarring. Alongside the mundane daily life of her interior worlds were scenes of real terror: A child smashing bottles of alcohol to prevent her parents from drinking or a man rearing up with a bat to beat a woman recoiling in horror on a bed.
Systemic issues ranging from suicide to domestic violence to substance abuse all made their way into her work, rendered with the same plain-spoken pencil-drawn sharpness. Later on, as she and Campbell grew closer, Pootoogook would confess that it was in fact her smashing bottles, as a child, or screaming in terror as one of many abusive boyfriends raised his hand against her. (The former work, from 2002, she eventually titled Memory of My Life: Breaking Bottles.)
Both were grim foreshadows of her heartbreaking end. When looking at Cutting Ice, there’s no way to separate the ingenuity and courage of Potoogook’s work from the tragedy of her death. In that way, her life threatens to subsume her art, as it has so many artists to meet such a fate. And Pootoogook’s symbolic significance, of systemic failure to provide adequate resources to Indigenous communities to combat longfestering social ills, looms large. If someone in her position could succeed so completely, only to fall victim to such ingrained social traumas, then the rot runs deep, indeed.
A better question, maybe, is whose version of success did Pootoogook meet? Artists at the co-op produced for generations because they were paid as a day job, under a federal economic development imperative. Pootoogook’s grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona, a renowned Inuit artist, drew those northern hunting and domestic scenes “because my family needs to eat,” she once told her granddaughter.
Falling into a global art world singling her out for celebrity was as much a trap as an escape for Pootoogook, who succumbed, at least in part, to its salubrious ways. A telling image, perhaps, is Myself in Scotland, of Pootoogook sporting a flowing updo. Granted a residency there in the whirlwind of her Sobey win, the image seems to speak of a shell-shocked Pootoogook trying desperately to get hip to the art world’s slick internationalism.
In Cape Dorset, Campbell says, people speak of Pootoogook leaving the community for the last time in 2012, serving as a translator for an elder being transported to a southern hospital. She’d been flown home by her Toronto gallery, Feheley Fine Arts, not long before, in an attempt to reset her self-destructive path; instead, she took her first ticket out. Before long, she was back on the street in Ottawa, begging for change to feed her addiction. If only she’d stayed, Campbell says people in Cape Dorset told her, she would have been all right.
“That’s the story they cling to,” Campbell says. “But the truth is, nobody knows.” What we do know is what we have, through Pootoogook: Clear, unblinking portraits of a broken system failing its people at every turn.
All is not so grim: Darkness is leavened with gleeful moments, sometimes of lascivious joy — the surreal Woman Above Man, a Cirque-du-Soleil-esque tower of naked flesh, or Getting Ready for a Date, in which Pootoogook preens in front of a mirror, wearing only red high heels.
Her world was her subject, by turns desolate, intimate and playful as she was. Her work was deceptively simple, veiling a sharp awareness of broader expectations for her work and an impish glee in subverting them. The facts of her death, many still to emerge, don’t degrade the significance of her life. The one time we met, she singled out a drawing as her favourite: A scene of herself and her mother, Napachie, also an artist, sitting at Pitseolak’s bedside, watching her draw. Which Annie will you remember? That’s the one I choose. Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice continues at the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art to Feb. 11, 2018.