As It Happens

Stereotypes plagued Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook in life as in death, says gallerist

Ottawa gallery curator Jason St-Laurent remembers his friend Annie Pootoogook. The artist's body was found last week in Ottawa's Rideau River.
L: Annie Pootoogook in Ottawa, July 2013; R: A drawing by Annie Pootoogook of meeting then Governor-General Michaëlle Jean in 2009. (Alexei Kintero/Annie Pootoogook/National Gallery of Canada/Dorset Fine Arts)
Listen7:28

Annie Pootoogook drew scenes of the domestic, everyday North. Drawings of Inuit families eating dinner, watching Dr. Phil, of couples in bed. She was celebrated for these frank depictions. Her work was displayed in the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario. 
Annie Pootoogook visiting Ottawa's SAW Gallery to view her work as part of the exhibition BIG BANG (Jason St-Laurent)

The 47-year-old artist died last week. Her body was found by a city worker in Ottawa's Rideau River. 

One place Ms. Pootoogook frequented was the SAW Gallery. She would stop by to draw, and took part in several exhibitions there. After learning of her death, curator and friend Jason St-Laurent describes a "brutal time" for his colleagues. 

Reflecting on their friendship, St-Laurent says Pootoogook found the media spotlight on her very difficult. He says she would sometimes "disappear" after articles that were published about her, feeling a sense of shame. 
Annie Pootoogook made this drawing following her visit with the former Governor General of Canada Michaelle Jean when an exhibition opened at the National Gallery in 2009. (Annie Pootoogook/National Gallery of Canada/Dorset Fine Arts)

He talked to As It Happens host Carol Off about Annie Pootoogook's life and work. 

It's hard to imagine these types of articles written on any other Canadian artist. But, when it comes to Indigenous artists, these types of very personal details make their way into articles.- Jason St-Laurent, SAW Gallery curator

Carol Off: How did you first meet Annie Pootoogook?

Jason St-Laurent: I first met her on the street in Ottawa, when I moved here about six years ago. We became instant friends. Her knowing that I worked in a gallery space got her excited. And then the visits became more and more frequent. And then we became good friends.

CO: Did you know she was an artist when you met her?

JSL: Oh yes, of course. I mean, she was a legend in our world. Not just from winning the Sobey Art Award, but you know, her work was everywhere you looked. And I had the opportunity to see her work multiple times before I met her.

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

CO: What effect did that celebrity have on her?

JSL: I think it was a tough thing to handle. She claims that's one of the reasons she left her home town [Cape Dorset] and came to Ottawa. The pressure from that prize and the pressure from the art market for her to produce, was something that weighed heavily on her.

CO: Was it hard for her to leave home?

JSL: Yes, she talked about that all the time. But, you know, there were some personal things in her life that weren't great in Cape Dorset. And I think she was looking for a fresh start. 

CO: Some of the things that were going on in her life turned up in her art, didn't they?

JSL: Oh yes. I mean she always claimed that she drew the world around her, her immediate world. And it wasn't always pretty. I think of some specific works, A Man Abuses His Wife. You know there are some very dark undercurrents to her work. Even the most banal of domestic situations, A Family Sleeping, for example. You can see five people in the same bed, her work was addressing a lot of the social issues up North in a way that was very sincere and heartbreaking.

Annie Pootoogook at the BIG BANG exhibition at Ottawa's SAW Gallery in 2015 (Jason St-Laurent)
 

CO: She was also dealing with issues of addiction in some of the drawings. She was also struggling with that in her own life, wasn't she?

JSL: I try to veer away from talking about Annie Pootoogook's personal life. So much has been written about it. And those are the articles that continued to haunt her. You know, I would see Annie many times a week, and then all of a sudden she would disappear when those articles came out. There was a certain shame she felt about them.

CO: I'm looking at some of the articles. There's one from 2014, the headline was "Alcohol Idleness Still Battle Acclaimed Inuit Artist." The next year, "Inuit Artist Back At Women's Shelter While Work Displayed At Art Gallery." So these are the articles that troubled her when she saw them in print?  

JSL: Yes. And you know it's hard to imagine these types of articles written on any other Canadian artist that's struggling. But, when it comes to Indigenous artists, these types of very personal details make their way into articles.

CO: Why do you think that it's tolerated to write about Inuit artists in this way?

JSL: I think it's perpetuation of stereotypes. And the media is drawn to those stereotypes. Those articles could've addressed the issue of affordable housing. But none of those articles talk about the crisis that is facing, in particular, the Inuit people in Ottawa. You know, I'd like to believe that Annie Pootoogook was leading us somewhere, was leading us to that river. Because I know that there are many Inuk people who are living there, along that very river. And I hope that this wakes people up in government. I look at Justin Trudeau trying to give Prince George a high-five, and I just want him to get to f--king work!

 CO: When you say the 'river', you mean the Rideau River -- where her body was found?

JSL: Yes. And where many Inuit people stay in the summer months for many reasons, one of which is they feel safer there than in the shelters.

RELATED: 'Suspicious elements' of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook's death draw Ottawa police attention

CO: When was the last time you saw Annie?

JSL: I saw her two months ago. I remember her being in high spirits. Having a place to stay, all these things seemed very positive to me. And then, she disappeared.

CO: How do you want to remember her?

JSL: As one of the most kindred spirits I've ever met. You know, when she came to my workplace she'd always make sure to hug everyone. If someone looked borderline sad, she'd crack some jokes to make them feel better. She was a bright light. We always looked forward to having her. We used to refer to her as 'art royalty.' It was always exciting to see her.

CO: Is there any one piece of her work that really stands out for you, that you cherish?

Annie Pootoogook Special Edition Bag (Jason St-Laurent)

JSL: We had been spotlighting the work of contemporary Inuit artists in Helsinki. And we asked Annie if she would design a bag. And she did. And it was from her series that is still unknown in the art world where she drew very intimate, erotic moments between lovers. And we have a very playful bag that I still carry with me, with one of those drawings. And you can imagine that something so playful and sexual at the same time, draws a lot of stares and questions. And so I'll keep carrying that bag with me.     

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Jason St-Laurent.