Renowned artist Elisapee Ishulutaq, OC passed away on December 9, 2018 in Panniqtuq (Pangnirtung), NU at the age of ninety-three. Born in 1925 at Kagiqtuqjuaq, a camp on Cumberland Sound, Ishulutaq lived a traditional life on the land until around 1970 when she and her family move to Panniqtuq.
In Panniqtuq, she began making prints for the recently established Pangnirtung Print Shop. “It did not look right to me but someone wanted it,” recalled the artist when talking about the first drawing she brought to the Print Studio. She quickly became one of the most active artists in the community, contributing 13 prints to the inaugural Pangnirtung print collection in 1973. “It was very hard, when I was trying to make prints. I would not have anything around me to remind me of how things looked like,” she noted about her early attempts at printmaking. “Sometimes it would get very discouraging, but I kept trying”.
Ishulutaq’s prints are an incredibly rich archive and provide important knowledge and insight into traditional camp life. “I enjoy making prints of the old way of life, sometimes I get nostalgic of the way we used to live.” In the early 1970s, concurrent to the development of a print program, artists in Panniqtuq began experimenting with woven tapestries. Ishulutaq’s drawings, with their whimsical figures and stylized perspective, transitioned beautifully from graphite drawings to woven wool. One of her most striking images to be translated into a weaving was Seeing a Helicopter for the First Time (1979) showing three figures running towards their skin tents as a helicopter looms above. Ishulutaq recalled her own experience of seeing a helicopter for the first time, “there were lots of qaluunat (white people) getting off them. All of the children were asked to come over to the helicopters, and they started to give out the most delicious candies to the children. I was very scared and I was trying to get close as I could to my mother, it was almost like I was trying to enter her body I was so scared.”
Beginning around 2009 Ishulutaq began working in oil stick, a medium that allowed her to explore colour, scale and composition in ways that she had not been able to previously. The work produced by Ishulutaq in the last decade of her life has been some of the most remarkable of her career: large scale drawings filled with scenes from her youth, mixed with scenes from today. “I always had the sense that she needed to express things about her past and what she was observing,” says her gallerist Robert Kardosh about these drawings, some as big as 9.5 m in length. “She used that to make very powerful art.” In addition to oil stick drawings, since 2009 Ishulutaq made large-scale sugar-lift prints with Studio PM in Montreal, QC and a series of drawings on sealskin.
In 1987 Ishulutaq was a founding member of the Uqqurmiut Inuit Artists Association, which serves artists in Pangnirtung. Her work can be found in every major institutional collection in Canada including the Government of Nunavut Collection, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, ON, Canadian Museum of History and National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Winnipeg, MB, among many others. In 2014 she was awarded the Order of Canada for her contributions to the cultural and economic health of her community as a role model and mentor. She has been featured on the cover on the Inuit Art Quarterly in 2010 and 2016.
Throughout her career, Ishulutaq foregrounded her experience as an Inuk woman and used her art to communicate with and teach the following generations of Inuit. On her legacy the artist once said, “I try and make prints so that people will know about them, and so that the next generations, my grandchildren, my children and people would know of who I was and what I have gone through.”
We offer our sincere condolences to Elisapee Ishulutaq’s family, friends and community in Panniqtuq.