Annie Pootoogook, caught between two worlds

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Her life, like her art, was situated between two worlds. And both her worlds featured soaring highs and tragic lows.

Annie Pootoogook’s life ended just over a year ago, on September 19, 2016.

In her 47 years of life, Pootoogook’s accomplishments made her into one of the most innovative – and prolific – artists to come out of the North, or anywhere in Canada.

Some of that brilliance is on display just north of Toronto at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in an exhibition that opened September 2 and runs until February 11, 2018.

The exhibit features 54 of Pootoogook’s works, selected mostly from before her move south, and includes a range of work representing the joy and distress she documented through her work.

Her journey of both emotions began in Cape Dorset (Kinngait), Nunavut, and ended in Ottawa.

On another level, it goes back generations to one of most well-known Inuit and Indigenous artists – her grandmother Pitseolak Ashoona. Her mother, Napachie Pootoogook, was a drafter of technical drawings, while her father, Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, was a printmaker and stone sculptor.

Her artistic proficiency may appear to be inherited, but according to those who knew her, Pootoogook’s journey was powered by her drive and determination.

When she began creating art at the age of 27, her works were seen as “alien”, however. They were not at all like the other works by Inuit artists being shipped south to be sold commercially, according to Bill Ritchie, who managed the Cape Dorset art co-op at the time.

She was told that her work would never sell. That she should stop. That she should conform to the art that was in demand.

Pootoogook didn’t listen, and her drive and resilience would pay off years later.

What separated her from the crowd was the focus of her art. While Inuit art had been a commercial venture, it mostly catered to southern ideas of the North and of Inuit lifestyles: polar bears, igloos, mythological creatures and hunting.

These are visions of a lifestyle that remained unchanged for thousands of years. But growing up, Pootoogook didn’t experience that lifestyle.

“I didn’t see any igloos in my life,” she explained in a 2006 documentary. “Only Ski-Doo, Honda, the house, things inside the house.”

The things she did see inspired her work.

There were still traditional camping pictures, explains Nancy Campbell, who curated Pootoogook’s first major exhibition at Toronto’s Power Plant in 2006. But there were also people watching TV, playing Nintendo, living in modern homes, eating Kraft Dinner.

There was an honesty about her work, even when it touched on sensitive and negative aspects of life in the North.

A work titled “Man Abusing His Partner” depicts exactly that.

Another, “Breaking Bottles”, shows a man smashing alcohol bottles outside a home.

“Begging for Money” imagines two homeless individuals on the streets.

The honesty was present in even joyful depictions of daily activities – watching TV with family, opening presents on Christmas, or harvesting whale meat on a beach.

It was unlike any Inuit art to come before it, and it challenged commonly held stereotypes.

These were the two worlds in which Pootoogook lived, two worlds that would be familiar to many Indigenous people in Canada.

A world where traditions are kept alive, where culture and languages are preserved and practiced. And a simultaneous modern world, full of modern adornments like televisions and heated homes – but also full of modern problems, like domestic abuse and alcoholism.

“I knew that hers was different from other Inuit art,” said Campbell, who curated the 2006 Toronto exhibit that helped Pootoogook gain international recognition.

Within a few months of that show, Pootoogook had won the Sobey Art Award and the accompanying $50,000 prize – a huge honour by any standard.

Then in 2007, she exhibited her work at the Documenta showcase in Germany, further propelling her meteoric ascent.

Pootoogook had a taste of life in the south after travelling to Montreal in 2006 to accept the Sobey Award, and decided to move to the city.

She briefly moved back to Cape Dorset before finally establishing herself in Ottawa, a city with a large Inuit population.

Though she seemed “happy to get away from a place where everyone knew her business,” said Campbell, the problems she faced up North followed her south.

She began a series of relationships with troubled men, many whom ended up in jail. By 2012, she was broke and homeless.

Pootoogook’s artistic production quickly diminished after moving south. Eventually it only consisted of occasional works she sold to passersby in downtown Ottawa, who likely had no idea who she was or that her pieces had once sold for up to $2,500.

Regrettably, her body was found in Ottawa’s Rideau River. While police initially considered her death suspicious, they did not treat it as homicide.

Ironically, as much as Pootoogook fought to clearly and truthfully convey the complexities – both good and bad – of a modern Northern and Inuit life, she wasn’t always afforded the same complexities, even in her passing.

Before her death, the Ottawa Citizen had published several reports about her dire situation living on the streets of the national capital.

But Jason St-Laurent, curator at SAW Gallery, explained to the CBC that Pootoogook felt “ashamed” by those articles, which didn’t speak to who she was.

Instead, Pootoogook was a “ray of sunshine,” in St-Laurent’s words. “When she came to my workplace she’d always make sure to hug everyone. If someone looked borderline sad, she’d crack some jokes to make them feel better. She was a bright light.”

Campbell also described her as very smart – but also very reserved and very quiet, until someone gained her trust. But these were not the details included in writings about her life.

However, a more controversial episode happened after her passing.

A member of the Ottawa Police Force, Chris Hrnchiar, posted on an online comment section in a story about Pootoogook’s death. While details were still unknown, he speculated that her death could have been a suicide or an accident.

Hrnchiar then wrote that “much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers.”

Ottawa’s police chief and mayor were both notified of the comments and Hrnchiar was later charged with two counts of discreditable conduct. He pled guilty, saying, “I’m truly sorry for my actions.”

In August 2017, Hrnchiar attempted to go beyond just those words, participating in a “Flotilla for Friendship”, while paddling a canoe up the Rideau Canal alongside two of Pootoogook’s young daughters.

All this contributed to Pootoogook becoming better known after her passing, said Campbell. At the same time, she’s hopeful that this will remind people how “amazing” Pootoogook was, and the legacy and impact she had.

It’s in that vein that Campbell curated the exhibition at McMichael Canadian Art Collection, which features 54 of an estimated 1,000 works in Pootoogook’s repertoire.

Five other artists who worked at the Cape Dorset art co-op will also be featured: Shuvinai Ashoona, Siassie Kenneally, Itee Pootoogook, Jutai Toonoo and Ohotaq Mikkigak.

Campbell is already seeing a lot of interest in the exhibition. Pootoogook is still shattering expectations and stereotypes.

“It’s not what people expect,” explains Campbell. “People say it isn’t Inuit art – which makes me giggle.”

Part of Pootoogook’s legacy is that “she cracked the glass ceiling of ethnicity for other Inuit artists to enter into the conversation with other Canadian artists.”

Campbell says that Pootoogook made this huge splash in the contemporary art world without ever meaning to. “She just made her art every day.”

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