By Dianne Meili
The sudden passing of Annie Pootoogook, 47, in Ottawa this past Sept. 19 brought two waves of emotion. There was initial grief amongst those who knew her as a friend and influential artist, and a flood of national anger as discrimination within law enforcement surfaced.
Police initially refused to investigate suspicious conditions surrounding Pootoogook’s death, even though her body had washed up on the shore of the Rideau River. An Ottawa police officer then wrote on social media that the artist’s death “could be a suicide, accidental, she got drunk and drowned” and in a second post he wrote “much of the Aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers.”
The comments were widely condemned as racist and gave rise to an internal investigation of the officer’s conduct.
Acclaimed artist, Annie Pootoogook was from Kinngait, the Inuktitut name for Cape Dorset. As the daughter of Napachie and Eegyvudlu Pootoogook, and granddaughter of Pitseolak Ashoona – all acclaimed artists – she was always drawing.
Despite the fact southerners at first rejected her art, which depicted real life, modern scenes around Kinngait instead of the preferred visions of traditional life like seal hunting and drum dancing, Pootoogook stuck with her aesthetic.
Even though she knew she would have made more money drawing pictures to please buyers, she continued to draw raw, intimate scenes of her life, as harsh as they sometimes seemed.
Her independence paid off, and her drawings caught the attention of Toronto art dealer Pat Feheley, who initiated Pootoogook’s trajectory to fame by giving her a solo exhibition in 2003 at Feheley Fine Art.
She promoted the young artist’s “honest” artwork to Toronto Power Plant curator Nancy Campbell, who asked Pootoogook to try a large format drawing for a show at her facility.
Cape Dorset Freeze– an image of northerners peering through the glass doors of a supermarket freezer–was the highlight of the show and was later purchased by the National Gallery of Canada.
Two months after the Power Plant show, Pootoogook won the prestigious $50,000 Sobey Award in November 2006. She travelled to Montreal to accept the award, and then went home to Cape Dorset to spend some, and give much of it away.
Another artistic coup came in 2007 with the inclusion of her work in Germany’s Documenta 12, for which she made national headlines and became the pride of her home community.
Pootoogook travelled to Europe for the event, and returned to Kinngait to stay for a while after the trip.
Deciding to live in Montreal and then Ottawa, she found a freedom in the city she couldn’t have in her close-knit Kinngait. She began working with oil stick, a more sophisticated medium than pen, ink and crayon.
Another large-format drawing emerged called Drawing my Grandmother’s Glasses. It was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario. A solo exhibit in The National Museum of the American Indian in New York displayed her artwork from 2009 to 2010.
Though her work seemed technically simple, her themes were wide-ranging and often playful, though her heavier themes of domestic violence challenged southern stereotypes of traditional life on the land.
Eschewing outdoor pursuits, Pootoogook loved to draw simple domestic scenes of people watching television or even cutting up a seal on the kitchen floor. A more hard-hitting picture illustrates a man advancing toward a woman sitting up in bed, his arms bent backward holding a large stick with which he’s about to hit her. The man is her boyfriend, and she is the woman in bed.
She is often quoted as having said she could only draw what she had lived.
“I didn’t see any igloos in my life,” Pootoogook says in a 2006 documentary about her art. “Only Skidoo, Honda, the house, things inside the house.”
Pootoogook and her cousin Shuvinai Ashoona are credited with altering the predictable stream of traditional artwork coming out of Kinngait which was considered more craft than art.
They altered the public’s idea of what Inuit art was and could be, opening doors for younger artists to experiment in their wake.
“Many of her drawings touch upon the devastation that alcoholism and suicide have wrought – both of which occur in epic proportions in the north, where communities are still healing from the open wounds of colonialism and the radical severing of lives once lived in rhythm with the land,” wrote Jasmine Budak in a 2012 blog.
Former Kinngait studio manager Bill Ritchie described Pootoogook as “engaging … hip, cool, and smart as a whip.” Jason St-Laurent of Ottawa’s SAW Gallery described her as a shining light, a free spirit who lived life on her own terms.
Pootoogook has also been described as humble, kind, vulnerable, and generous to a fault. She struggled with the success that her practice brought and for a period it was as though everyone wanted a piece of her.
At the annual vigil for Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, held just days after Potoogook’s death, her second cousin Sytukie Joamie told a huge crowd, which included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “Annie was afraid to go near the water, yet she was found in the water. One of our sisters was found under very suspicious circumstances, yet … the police said there was no suspicion. The Inuit community, when we heard about Annie being found, we knew right away that it was suspicious because nobody walks into the water.”
Pootoogook’s boyfriend William Watt also stated she was afraid of water and would only enter it up to her knees.
A memorial service for Pootoogook was held in Ottawa, and then her body was flown to Kinngait for burial. The funeral service was held entirely in Inuktitut and was highly emotional. The artist’s youngest daughter, Napachie, 4, was brought to the funeral by her adoptive parents. It was the first time she met her extended Inuit family and her first visit to the north.