“Well, Brother, That’s Progress!” 1976, by Alootook Ipellie. Collection of Marjorie and Michael P.J. Kennedy, Vanscoy, Saskatchewan. (PHOTO BY JUSTIN WONNACOTT)

Alootook Ipellie retrospective launches in Ottawa, then moves to Iqaluit

“He’s such an amazing guy and more than deserves this exhibition”


As artist Alootook Ipellie spent his childhood in Iqaluit and his adult life in Ottawa, it seems only appropriate that the first major retrospective of his work will be shown in both cities.

If you can’t get to the exhibition that starts next Monday at the Carleton University Art Gallery in Ottawa and runs until Dec. 9, then you could catch it at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit next year after April 13.

The exhibition is called “Walking Both Sides of an Invisible Border,” after the poem of the same name by Ipellie, in which he describes “Walking in two different worlds, trying my best to make sense of two opposing cultures.”

Exhibition co-curator Sandra Dyck, who is the director of the Carleton University Art Gallery, told Nunatsiaq News that “Ipellie’s work is so much about negotiating these two worlds in which he lived … as somebody who grew up in the North and came to live in the south and was constantly negotiating those two realities, individually as a person and also in his work.”

The collection consists of over a 100 works that span Ipellie’s varied career from the early 1970s to 2007, the year of his death at the age of 56. Most of the pieces are ink drawings, although there are a few posters that Ipellie designed, as well as books and magazines that he contributed to as editor, writer, cartoonist and illustrator.

“The Death of Nomadic Life, the Creeping Emergence of Civilization,” 2007, by Alootook Ipellie. Estate of the artist. (PHOTO BY JUSTIN WONNACOTT)

The overall effect is a lot of black and white, but the humour, wit and surrealism in Ipellie’s work mean that the collection is very lively and engaging.

The signature piece is the drawing “The Death of Nomadic Life, the Creeping Emergence of Civilization,” which is a self-portrait showing the artist framed by narwhal tusks. Outside the tusks, Ipellie is wearing caribou skins and holding a knife and a harpoon, standing on the land—a man of the North. Within the tusks, he’s wearing a suit and a bowtie, with a ticket to a concert—Elvis has Left the Building!—and a pint of beer—a man of the south.

This theme of managing two lives, the traditional and the new, is repeated, for example, in “Well, Brother, That’s Progress!” where a disconsolate man is repairing his snowmobile or “MOTOR-DOGGY,” while his neighbour glides by on his traditional qamutik.

Dyck told Nunatsiaq News that what particularly interests her about Ipellie’s work is that “he was a prodigious artist, a prolific artist with a diverse output and skilled in so many areas.”

She said that in addition to drawing, Ipellie was a graphic designer who worked on books and magazines, including Inuit Monthly and Inuit Today, where he was an editor, writer, cartoonist and cultural commentator. He was also a cartoonist for this newspaper, in addition to being a talented poet and photographer.

She said Ipellie was best known in the art world for his ink drawings in books such as “Arctic Dreams and Nightmares,” but in the North he was better known through his cartoons in magazines.

Another interesting aspect of Ipellie’s work, said Dyck, is that even the drawings from the ’70s look contemporary in their themes.

“His work deals with many issues that we are dealing with today. The impact of colonization, sovereignty, climate change, resource extraction, all these issues that remain pressing.”

She pointed out that Ipellie’s drawing could be very cutting, critical and political, but also funny.

“It’s wonderful work. It’s so funny. It feels so prescient. It’s so contemporary … It’s honestly an honour and a privilege to do this [show]. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been a labour of love. He’s such an amazing guy and more than deserves this exhibition.”

Dyck and her fellow curators—Heather Igloliorte, who is an associate professor of art history at Concordia University, and Christine Lalonde, who is an associate curator of Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada—began the search for works to exhibit in 2014.

A number of the pieces in the exhibition come from the artist’s estate. Few had been acquired by public collections in Canada. Dyck thinks this is partly because Ipellie’s work didn’t meet southern expectations of what Inuit art should look like.

This may also be because he didn’t have a dealer, though he did have many supporters, so numerous pieces are owned privately by individuals, including Senator Denis Patterson, whom the curators tracked down through the network of collectors of Inuit art.

Everyone the curators approached agreed to lend their works, saying the retrospective was long overdue, even though it means they won’t see their drawings for close to a couple of years.

Ottawa writer and editor Joyce MacPhee lent the drawing “Trying to get to heaven,” which shows a smiling shaman being tossed on a blanket by a group of Inuit of all ages. She said that she chose the piece because it makes her feel happy and gives the viewer a sense of Inuit community.

MacPhee told Nunatsiaq News that Ipellie would have been happy to be recognized in Ottawa, but “it would have meant everything to him for his work to be showcased in Iqaluit.”

Information may be found here about the dates and locations of this travelling exhibition, which will also visit Hamilton and Winnipeg, as well as the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, which supported Ipellie during his lifetime and acquired a number of his works.

“Trying to Get to Heaven,” by Alootook Ipellie. Published in Arctic Dreams and Nightmares (1993). Collection of Joyce MacPhee. (PHOTO BY JUSTIN WONNACOTT)

“Trying to Get to Heaven,” by Alootook Ipellie. Published in Arctic Dreams and Nightmares (1993). Collection of Joyce MacPhee. (PHOTO BY JUSTIN WONNACOTT)

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