Shopping at the co-op, a Coleman stove flanked by Robin Hood Flour and salt, tender family portraits and interior scenes of feasting or lounging in front of the television, or perhaps of something darker—these are some of the now iconic images that have come to define the remarkable oeuvre of celebrated graphic artist Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016). What have been arguably less considered, however, are her psychological self-portraits, defined by their complex spiritual iconography and returned to again and again by the artist over her brief but prolific career.
Years ago, when I was working at an art gallery, I was surprised when a potential donation was rejected by the curatorial staff. They felt that the work wasn’t a strong example of that artist’s particular practice, which is a common enough line of thinking. But I wonder how these impressions are shaped—what constitutes an oeuvre’s strength? The enormous contribution that Annie Pootoogook made to contemporary drawing is a topic of universal agreement. Few artists have garnered the amount of attention in the Canadian media that Pootoogook secured; no other contemporary artist’s personal life has received the scrutiny that hers did. The fact that she captured life in the North during a time of transition, unflinchingly depicting even the hardest aspects of these changes, is the best-known interpretation of her work. But perhaps rearranging our mental furniture can allow for a different understanding of the life that Pootoogook presented in her work.
Most of the details of her biography (well-worn territory by now) are easy to agree upon. On a May day in 1969, Annie Pootoogook was born into a lineage of artists. Her mother, Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002), and her maternal grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona, CM, RCA (c. 1904–1983), were trailblazing artists in their own right (among many other members of Pootoogook’s extended family). But their influence wouldn’t surface in Pootoogook for almost 30 years. Pootoogook was a great artist, but she wasn’t a prodigy. She had living to do, including a move to Arctic Quebec, before she returned to Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, in the mid 1990s and entered the studio, agreeing to work on drawings at home and to bring them in for the twice-weekly sales.
Pootoogook began drawing in the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in earnest in 1997. Her work quickly caught the attention of William Ritchie, who was then the Arts Adviser at the studio. “I see so much that sometimes it all kind of looks the same, but Annie’s didn’t,” remembers Ritchie. “It was different, but Annie wasn’t an anomaly. [Her work] was like her mother’s…. I’ve worked with Napachie. I’ve worked with Kananginak [Pootoogook, RCA (1935–2010)]. I’d seen Itee [Pootoogook (1951–2014)]’s work. So, to see Annie come along in this vein, it made total sense.” When dealer Pat Feheley made a trip north to catch up on the latest work, Ritchie suggested she take a look at the drawings in Pootoogook’s shelf. “I looked through them, and I thought they were stunning,” recalls Feheley. “I literally went across the road to Jimmy Manning, who was at that point the Studio Manager, and said, ‘I have to break the rules, because I have got to get Annie Pootoogook in my show,’ and he said, ‘You will never sell those.’” That story, or versions of it, has become canon.
Feheley’s inclusion of Pootoogook’s work in The Unexpected (2002) was an immediate success—all the pieces sold—and the artist’s first solo exhibition quickly followed at the gallery in 2003. The next three years were an incredibly productive time, and larger shows and accolades followed: Pootoogook was awarded the Sobey Art Award in 2006 (still today it is hard to imagine that just three years after her first solo show, she received this highly coveted prize), and exhibitions included a large showing at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, in 2006; the Biennale de Montréal in 2007; documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, in 2007; the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, in 2009; and the Biennale of Sydney in 2010. But by 2007, Pootoogook’s personal life had begun to shift. She was living on and off in Montreal (and later in Ottawa), and, as countless newspaper articles reported, addiction issues surfaced and her drawing became much more sporadic. (It has been reported that she continued to draw over the next 10 years, but it’s harder to account for these works, which weren’t all being filtered through the gallery system).
It’s the kind of meteoric rise of which many artists could only dream. Looking over those earliest works that Feheley saw, it’s striking to see them bear such a resemblance to Pootoogook’s most iconic images. It would be easy, between these early works and her swift ascension in the art world, to assume that Pootoogook began as a fully-formed artist. There are interior scenes, such as an empty yellow kitchen, where small, mundane items—a coffee pot, fridge magnets, an ulu (woman’s knife) balanced against the counter—are rendered in crisp miniature. On the kitchen walls hang small objects: an oven mitt, a clock stopped at 1:55 p.m., and a calendar marking the month of June. These indicators of time and decorative elements appear again and again throughout Pootoogook’s work, but her drawing was a constant process of return, an urge to revisit and rework. In these early works tiled floors lack any sense of perspective, appearing more like a vertical checkerboard than a receding surface, shadows are non-existent and a sense of space is absent. These elements are addressed in later works and slowly added in (or, in the case of the shadows, a sudden realization that Pootoogook dives into, only to even out later).
Pootoogook’s urge to return extends beyond technical capabilities into subject matter. There were no discreet phases to the artist’s work, no series that was worked on for a period of time and then moved beyond. It was always a negotiation. But it may be time for us, as viewers, to return as well and to reconsider some of the drawings that fit less neatly into the narrative that has come to define her. There is one work in the early batch—well before the press and the Sobey Award and documenta and leaving Kinngait—that looks a little different. Two figures float, unanchored in space, as strange mirror images of one another. Around one figure emanates sinuous lines in black, a red devilish creature floats at her shoulder and a rose wilts at her feet. Around the other figure, straight yellow lines burst, like rays of the sun, while an angel floats above and a radiant rose blooms. “Her life was like death before she was saved. After she was saved, she became alive,” reads the inscription. It’s a work unlike the better known interior and camping scenes, and yet this trajectory would run parallel to Pootoogook’s other works throughout her career.
In Composition (Woman with Good and Evil) (2002–3) a woman is similarly torn between an evil serpent and an angel. In Composition (Good Replacing Bad) (2003–4) a man kneels in prayer on a floating leaf, as red lines emanate out from a bible and reach towards him, seemingly driving out the blackened lines of negativity. These works are not simply spiritual—although Pootoogook produced a great many pieces that fall into that category—they are overtly religious. That religion factors heavily in Pootoogook’s work comes as little surprise. Looking through the works of Napachie and Pitseolak, it becomes evident that she was raised in a religious family. In her grandmother’s book Pitseolak: Pictures Out of My Life (1971), Anglican clergymen are frequently mentioned, and Pitseolak remembers “the completion of what in Cape Dorset is known as [the] Pootoogooks’ church.” Tragically, two of Pootoogook’s siblings were killed in a house fire that started while Napachie and her husband, Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, were at church. Religion also features heavily in Napachie’s own drawings.
Looking through enough of these images, a whole iconography, seemingly without any direct precedence, begins to emerge. It is a universe of binaries. There are lines to indicate good (often yellow) or bad (often black) forces, teardrop-like shapes, and roses, which are either dying or thriving. Many of these symbols are either intuitive or quotidian. Plastic flowers, roses in particular, are popular in the North; even in historian Dorothy Harley Eber’s account of visiting Pitseolak decades ago for their interviews, she makes a note of “a bowl of plastic flowers” sitting in the room.
In many ways, these works, with their interior language and total disconnect from lived reality, run counter to Pootoogook’s best-known works, which render scenes of life in the North, caught between Inuit tradition and the influence of southern forces. “The reality shown in Pootoogook’s interiors is that Inuit life, currently, is a meshing of the traditional lifestyle with new ways adopted from the South. Therein lies the fascination of these compositions,” writes curator and art historian Nancy Campbell. Pootoogook captures this process through her attention to the mundanity of things: clocks and key hooks on walls or Dr. Phil on the television, and of course through her willingness to tackle the darker sides of life unflinchingly. Her images of domestic abuse and the fallout of addiction are undoubtedly among Pootoogook’s most recognized works, despite constituting a small subset of her output. There is belief because of these depictions that Pootoogook was something of a documentarian. It’s a reading that was also promoted by the artists herself, who was insistent on the veracity of her drawings. “I cannot draw anything that I did not experience,” she explained in a 2006 documentary. It’s an impulse that was shared by Pitseolak and Napachie, and one that Pootoogook was aware of. She remembered Pitseolak’s motivations, recounting what her grandmother told her, “‘I’m drawing because my grandchildren have to eat.’ But she drew a true story, too, about her life.”
Critic Deborah Root and others have written extensively about the troubling search for authenticity within Inuit art, and the ways in which Pootoogook’s work both upends and plays into these impulses. “Within a contemporary art paradigm…‘authenticity’ means something rather different. Here, disturbing images tend to be seen as more ‘real’ than beautiful ones, in part because the artist’s job is to strip away the dishonesty and pretension of modern society,” argues Root. Perhaps this accounts for the foregrounding of Pootoogook’s interiors and camp scenes over her more spiritual and religious works. The latter, I would argue, are the more difficult works. As Heather Igloliorte has argued, “Her images de-exoticized the Arctic. Yet, at the same time, they highlighted how truly great the distance is between the lives of southern Canadians and their neighbours in Inuit Nunangat, and how little the South truly knows about the experience of life in the North.” But how does a southern audience even begin to place itself in relation to Pootoogook’s spiritual scenes? There is no clearly demarked space to step into, no calendar on the wall indicating the date, no recognizable television program that suggests continuity between life in the South and life in the North. Instead, there is unmoored emotion and religious leanings that, in a contemporary art world more accustomed to scathing critiques of the church, register as undeniably unfashionable.
There is some continuity between these bodies of work. The spiritual scenes still depict a kind of event, but it’s an interior emotional one, rather than an exterior one. As Jimmy Manning has described it, “Sometimes she will draw hurting feelings from her heart which she’s not afraid to say on paper.” Feheley began to understand how immediate the emotional process of these works was when she saw the artist create Happy and Sad for My Brother (2006). It was a work that Pootoogook began in Scotland, where she spent two months working as part of the Glenfiddich Artist in Residence program. “She had started a drawing and there were all of these black lines and things,” Feheley recalls. “And she said, ‘I’m drawing this because I’m upset about my brother, because he was arrested, and I think this time they’re going to put him in jail.’ But the next day, she talked to her family again and he hadn’t been jailed, he had been let go, and she completed the drawing in happy mode.”
Whereas Pootoogook’s interior and exterior scenes function like a stage—with a rectangular, demarcated region where the action takes place—the spiritual works and the transformation pieces are encircled with sinuous lines. The central figures sit in the middle of the page, with elements reaching in and looping out. There are some formal similarities with her other scenes—namely, her strong, clear lines, which she marked in pencil before rendering in ink. But the approach is so different it leaves me searching for another point of reference, a different influence. For these works, Ritchie points to the work of illustrator Alootook Ipellie (1951–2007), whose black-and-white drawings, published with Inuktut commentary and heavily circulated in the North, were a watershed moment. “His work looks like a lot of other people’s work now, [but] it was the first influence of that kind of linear drawing, that kind of portraiture,” he explains. “It was really popular amongst Inuit, and I think Annie and Tim [Pitsiulak (1967–2016)] and Itee and all those guys have a little bit of him in them.” The connection is far from direct, but there are moments where Ipellie’s influence on Pootoogook might be apparent, like Composition (Evil Spirit) (2003–4), where an umbilical cord-like line connects the figure’s mouth to the genitals of the spirit, encircling them both.
Trying to find some obvious direct reference point, though, is something of a fool’s errand. Napachie and Pitseolak’s books, because of their inclusion of Inuktut and broad circulation are more the exception than the rule in terms of impact. The average drawing has less of a wide reception in the co-op than one might expect. It’s a reality that contradicts arguments that Pootoogook’s work had a directly traceable influence on other artists working in Kinngait. “Annie would work at home on a drawing for a weekend or overnight, because we buy drawings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When Annie would walk in the door, I would take that drawing, lay it out on the tabletop and look at it, and if it was really good, I would bring over Joemie [Takpaungai], who is the Assistant Studio Manager, and we would decide what the price of the drawing would be,” explains Ritchie. “Two or three people in the studio might have seen it. It goes into a drawer, into a tube and it ships out. It never comes back. None of this art comes back to the community.” More than subject matter or style, Feheley argues that Pootoogook’s influence can be felt in the freedom that she promoted. “It was as if freedom was suddenly okay,” Feheley says of the shift, “and you could see it happen.”
Pootoogook’s work told stories. We, in turn, tell stories about Pootoogook’s work. No artistic legacy is set in stone, and our understanding of her work and its impact will inevitably shift and change over time. This year alone, there will certainly be plenty of opportunities to see it in a new light: among other showings, curator Kitty Scott has included it in the 2018 Liverpool Biennial. Hopefully, these returns will begin to account for the breadth of experience that is detailed across Pootoogook’s work. Looking through the memoirs of the artist’s mother and grandmother, I was struck by a particular passage from Eber in the latter’s book: “In August 1971, about a year after we finished the interview sessions that led to Pitseolak: Pictures Out of My Life, I was able to show Pitseolak the first copy of our book. As her grandchildren looked on, she turned every page, and then, when I asked what she thought, with the help of our interpreter she said, ‘I am not ashamed of it.’” I imagine Pootoogook among that group of grandchildren, looking on at a life laid out in images and words, understanding that there is no shame in telling your story. Perhaps, we are finally in a position to listen to the full range of stories Pootoogook saw fit to share with us.
This feature appeared in the fall 2018 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly as the cover story.