Redrawing the boundaries of Inuit art

From alcoholism to soya sauce, Pootoogook’s images win acclaim and high prices



When Annie Pootoogook’s pencil crayon and ink drawings of modern Inuit life were first shown at a Toronto art gallery three years ago, they broke the mould of traditional Inuit art.

And even her strongest supporters wondered how art collectors would receive them.

“Most people, both in the North and in the South, thought that they would never sell,” says Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts, the Inuit art gallery in Toronto where Pootoogook had her first solo show in 2003. “They thought they weren’t traditional enough.”

But just three years after that first show outside of Cape Dorset, her drawings sell for $1,000 to $1,500 each and she has been shortlisted for the prestigious and lucrative Sobey Art Award for Canadian art.

Pootoogook, 37, currently has more than 50 works hanging in two shows running simultaneously in Toronto, at Feheley Fine Arts and The Power Plant contemporary art gallery. And she will spend the next two months in Scotland as part of the Glenfiddich Artist Residency, where she will join artists from the United States, Africa, France and Scotland.

“I’m very happy and excited,” says Pootoogook over the phone from Toronto on the eve of one of her openings. “I am very happy to see many of my works. Everything is very exciting.”

Although she didn’t start drawing until 1997, Pootoogook’s observations and depictions of modern life in the Far North are redefining Inuit art.

“People come in and they are seduced by her colours,” says Feheley. “The images look simple, but really they’re not. There is so much in them.”

Feheley was first introduced to Pootoogook’s work by Bill Ritchie, a lithographer at Kinngait Arts in Cape Dorset, the self-proclaimed capital of traditional Inuit art, renowned for its sculptures and prints. Feheley was instantly drawn to the freshness of Pootoogook’s subject matter and the honest stories the images told.

Pootoogook’s work chronicles her experience of time and place as a woman living in the changing world of the contemporary Arctic. The results range from images of mundane domestic scenes to intimately personal scenes of the darker realities afflicting 21st century Inuit communities, such as alcoholism and domestic abuse.

A simple drawing of a meal of char and muktuk prepared on a piece of cardboard on the floor, next to a bottle of soya sauce speaks volumes of an evolving reality that blends tradition with material influences from the south.

“I’m a curator of contemporary art, not specifically Inuit art,” says Nancy Campbell, curator of Pootoogook’s current exhibit at The Power Plant.

“I found Annie’s work was very compelling because it dealt with contemporary issues. People have preconceived ideas about Inuit life and Inuit art and she seems, in a very simple way, to break some of those boundaries.”

Pootoogook’s way of going against the artistic grain follows in the artistic vision of her family of accomplished artists.

Her grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona, was a visionary of Inuit graphic art in her time. Her mother Napachie’s prints continue to break the boundaries of traditional Inuit art over a 40-year career and have been shown in the National Gallery of Canada. Between the work of these three women the vast changes that have taken place in the Inuit community over the past 50 years are fearlessly depicted.

For Feheley, this breaking of boundaries is exciting and promising for the future of Inuit art. While a generation of established artists age and the market becomes saturated, Feheley thinks that it is essential for Inuit art to evolve and break into the mainstream to survive.

“I think Annie’s success is encouraging for others to understand that they can break out of what they might feel pressured by the market to do,” says Feheley.

As an artist Pootoogook continues to change. Her most recent works depict everyday objects, such as a pair of glasses or an insect, that are closely examined, resembling a still life. “Her style is evolving as she becomes more and more of a mature artist,” says Feheley.

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