Annie Pootoogook captures Canada’s north-south divide
By David Balzer
June 27, 2006
All images courtesy Power Plant/Fehely Fine Arts.
Annie Pootoogook’s new exhibit at Toronto’s Power Plant is a debut in more ways than one. Not only is it her first at a Canadian public gallery, but it’s also the first time the Power Plant, Canada’s pre-eminent venue for contemporary art, has dedicated a major show to an Inuit artist.
That it’s taken the Power Plant some 18 years to welcome someone like Pootoogook says as much about Inuit art’s prominence (or lack thereof) in the Canadian contemporary art scene as it does about the production and promotion of the art itself. Inuit and contemporary art are, at first glance at, strange bedfellows. The former – with its entrenched representations of hunting and fishing, parkas and igloos – continues to adorn the walls of museums, offices, airports, embassies and specialty galleries the world over as a stock symbol of Canada. The latter, constantly in flux and dependent on a volatile, internationally driven market, seems anomalous to the kind of closed, traditional life one associates with Canada’s Far North.
Pootoogook, however, manages to meld both realms. Born in 1969 in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, a hub of the Inuit art world, Pootoogook started drawing only nine years ago, under the auspices of the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative — a place that, like most northern co-ops, encourages its members to take up art-making as a source of income. (Art-making is one of the North’s primary economic activities.) Pootoogook builds on a family legacy: her grandmother was Pitseolak Ashoona, one of Canada’s most revered first-generation Inuit draftspeople, and her mother was Napachie Pootoogook, an important West Baffin co-op printmaker.
Napachie and Pitseolak’s influences are readily found in Annie Pootoogook’s work. Both her forebears were chroniclers of their times, and Annie follows suit – diverging from many of her peers, who frequently stick to cliché forms and symbols in order to please southern buyers. Pootoogook’s austere, often humorous pencil-crayon drawings are unflinching; they capture a radically shifting culture, one still tied to custom, yet inundated with southern goods, technology and media (from manufactured boots to portable phones to Jerry Springer).
Nancy Campbell, curator of Pootoogook’s Power Plant show, underlines the work’s function as a window for curious southerners. “I think these drawings are a pretty accurate reflection of a community that’s still very much caught between contemporary life and life on the land,” says Campbell. “It’s not that one is better than the other; they just co-exist. Annie’s art is new – though it looks somewhat the same stylistically as her elders’ – because the times are new. They’ve changed dramatically.”
Pencil, crayon and ink
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