Biography of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook balances the good with the controversy, says author

A year and a half after Pootoogook’s death, Nancy Campbell has put together a biography of the Inuk artist.

Nancy Campbell followed Annie Pootoogook's career for more than 10 years

Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice will be released on Feb. 20, a week after the companion exhibition of the same name closes at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection just outside Toronto. (Goose Lane Editions)

Nancy Campbell first encountered Annie Pootoogook's drawings at a small exhibition of Pootoogook's work at Toronto's Feheley Fine Arts gallery in 2003.

A year later, Campbell proposed a solo show at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, where she was curator. It finally came to fruition in 2006. Pootoogook visited Toronto for the first time for the show.

Nancy Campbell researched contemporary Inuit drawing during her PhD with a focus on Annie Pootoogook and Pootoogook's cousin, Shuvinai Ashoona. (Marivic Turner)

Pootoogook was from Cape Dorset, Nunavut. She had broken with artistic practices associated with that community's Kinngait Studios, opting to depict contemporary scenes of Northern life.

"At that time, she was in her 30s, she was making work that was a little bit different than what we have come to understand as what Inuit art should look like," said Campbell.

Campbell continued to work with Pootoogook and to follow her career over the next 10 years, and now a year and a half after Pootoogook's death, she has put together a biography of the Inuk artist.

Companion to exhibition

Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice will be released Feb. 20, a week after her retrospective exhibition of the same name closes at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, northwest of Toronto.

Curators at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection approached Campbell with the idea of an exhibition and companion book shortly after Pootoogook's death. 

Campbell has a PhD in art history. She focused on contemporary Inuit drawings, and on Pootoogook and her cousin, artist Shuvinai Ashoona. She says without the 15 years she spent working on the material, she would not have been ready with the book so quickly.

However, she says she's glad she didn't dive into it right after Pootoogook's death.

"After she died, I was so sad, as many were, and I didn't know what to do with it all," she said. 

"I didn't really speak to any press. It was so complex, the story, with so many highs and so many lows."

But when the McMichael approached her, she said she came to see the project as a way to present a balanced picture of her life.

"There's been so much speculation about her death and her life," she said.

"Who's to blame for her death and her struggles and when I talked to the community, when I was visiting as part of research for this book, they said, 'Make sure you make it clear about all the good things in Annie's life.'"

One of the better known works by Annie Pootoogook, "Dr. Phil".

Campbell says she took the advice of the elders in Cape Dorset and included interviews in the book with Pootoogook's siblings and people in the community who knew her. They detailed her love of hunting, fishing and community life.

The book contains 62 full-colour drawings, stretching from Pootoogook's earliest works to the last drawing she sold (excluding those she sold while living on the street in Ottawa), which is now in the National Gallery of Canada.

Contribution to contemporary art

It also contains a critical essay which explores how Pootoogook influenced Inuit artists to break with traditional or commercial work and find recognition from contemporary art critics.

Pootoogook "cracked the glass ceiling" for Inuit art in 2006 when she won the prestigious Sobey Art Award, but the win was not without controversy.

"I remember being at the reception afterwards, and one of the artists, who will not be named, wouldn't even shake Annie's hand," said Campbell.

"That was more than 10 years ago, and how the conversation has changed."

Another essay in the book, co-authored by the West Baffin Eskimo Co-op, explains how artists make a living in the North and the how the Co-op has supported them for decades.

Goose Lane Editions published the book for the McMichael and it will be available at the gallery and through Indigo, according to Campbell.