Winnipeg curator mourns death of a 'shining light' in Inuit art

The Winnipeg Art Gallery's longtime Inuit art curator is mourning the loss of award-winning artist Annie Pootoogook.

Annie Pootoogook, 47, found dead in Ottawa river last week

Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook in Ottawa on July, 2013. (Courtesy Alexei Kintero)

The Winnipeg Art Gallery's longtime Inuit art curator is mourning the loss of award-winning artist Annie Pootoogook.

"I was extremely sad because she's been one of our shining lights for the last two decades of Inuit art," said Darlene Coward Wight. "It wasn't a big surprise because she's had a rough 10 years in Ottawa."

Annie Pootoogook's Tea Drinkers from 2001–2002. The drawing is part of the Winnipeg Art Gallery's collection. (

Pootoogook was found dead in the Rideau River in Ottawa last week. Police said there are "suspicious elements" related to her death but will not confirm whether foul play is involved.

Coward Wight said Pootoogook struggled with substance abuse in the Ottawa area for the better part of the last decade.

"We all hoped she would just go back to Cape Dorset where her extended family would look after her," she said. "But that didn't happen."

Influence of her work

Pootoogook's grandmother Pitseolak Ashoona and parents, Napachie and Eegyvudlu Pootoogook, were artists, too. But her work split from traditional scenes depicted in Inuit art.

Pootoogook used coloured pencils to create snapshots of present-day life in her home community of Cape Dorset, said Coward Wight. In that sense, her work was "very realistic," she said.

She first burst onto the international art scene in 2006 when her drawings were exhibited at the influential Power Plant Gallery in Toronto. Pootoogook would later go on to win the Sobey Art Award for best emerging Canadian artist and become the first artist to exhibit in at Documenta, an exhibition in Kassel, Germany.

"She really took the art world by storm," said Coward Wight. Pootoogook was able to cross the line from Inuit art to become part of Canada's broader contemporary art scene, she said.

"She was an original artist. She drew like no one had drawn before," said Coward Wight.

"She showed other younger artists that they could do different things, they didn't have to show people in fur clothing living in igloos."