Annie Pootoogook: Depicting Arctic modernity in contemporary Inuit art

Annie Pootoogook, In The Summer Camp, 2002, pencil, ink and coloured pencil on paper. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts. 

 When graphic artist Annie Pootoogook passed away last year, there was an outpouring of public grief. Numerous articles were also published in the popular press, primarily focusing on her artistic career as a rising star whose success was marred by a descent into poverty and struggles with addiction. Pootoogook first gained national attention by winning the Sobey Award in 2006, a $50,000-dollar prize for a contemporary artist under forty years of age; a decade later she died, destitute and homeless, in Ottawa, Ontario.

In Canada, we have been quick to scandalise Pootoogook’s personal history as a tragic example of an Indigenous artist’s meteoric rise to fame and rapid fall into homelessness and substance abuse. Yet we are slower to connect her individual experiences, as reflected in her insightful works, to the history and ongoing colonisation of the Arctic, and slower still to understand that history in relation to the development of the modern and contemporary Inuit art industry. Pootoogook’s oeuvre draws these threads together. Her drawings provide shrewd and significant commentary on contemporary Inuit society in light of the lasting impacts of the colonisation and modernisation of the Arctic.

Her work also reveals how she viewed her practice within the context of Inuit art history in relation to her remarkable artistic lineage, experiences with the Kinngait (Cape Dorset, Nunavut) art studio co-operative, and even her own burgeoning celebrity. The field of contemporary Inuit arts is characterised by the fascinating paradox of the relationship between the Canadian state, Inuit art history, and Inuit who live within today’s Canadian Arctic borders. Elsewhere I have written at length on the beginning of the modern Inuit art industry and its complicated relationship to Arctic colonisation.[1] 

In brief, in the mid‑twentieth century when the assimilative policies of the Canadian government—which aggressively sought to suppress and eradicate the entire pre‑contact Inuit way of life—were at their height, this same government began actively funding, collecting, promoting, and celebrating Inuit art, both domestically and abroad, as a quintessentially Canadian art form. Inuit art was admired in southern Canada and worldwide for its association with the primitive, untouched, and exotic, echoing the sentiment of modernist primitivism reverberating throughout Europe at the same time.

Yet in Canada, the same things that made Inuit art desirable to the modern art market were the practices, knowledge and belief systems that the Church and State were simultaneously working to destroy. In the 1950s and 1960s many Inuit artists, who had grown up on the land, were recording in their artworks the knowledge of their families and ancestors, passed down orally for countless generations but which had become abruptly threatened by a few decades of forced settlement and relocation, aggressive religious conversion, and the removal of Inuit children to residential schools.[2] And yet, in the face of the sudden and rapid industrialisation of the Arctic, artists were being praised for their stone sculptures and prints depicting life as it had been before the arrival of Qallunaat[3]; wearing skin clothing, travelling by dog team, and hunting traditionally.

Annie Pootoogook, Cape Dorset Freezer, 2005, pencil, ink and coloured pencil on paper. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts. 

While angakkuit (Inuit shamans) were actively banned from practising traditional medicine and ceremony, images of shamanism and human–animal transformation were lauded by the art market. Many collectors, predominantly affluent, white and Western, still privilege the early works from this era, without acknowledging that the works they prize as authentic are the direct results of destructive assimilative policies. The irony is that the way of life depicted in these images, already one generation removed, is often lost in these discussions of taste, aesthetics and value. Because Inuit were eager to preserve knowledge of this era, they continued to produce this work for the art market; because southern buyers wanted access to another world, these images of pre‑contact life sold (and still sell) well. 

Yet, while artists of the first and second generations of the modern Inuit art movement had also always created works that demonstrated their interest and engagement with the South and the industrial modernisation of the North, those works were not making their way to southern audiences. James Houston, the Qallunaat artist and entrepreneur who is often credited with instigating the modern Inuit art movement, noted that in the 1950s and 1960s, his method of encouraging Inuit to participate in the arts industry was to buy everything artists made, and to later destroy, or even throw into the ocean, those sculptures that did not fit within the prescribed idea of Eskimo modernism at the time.[4] 

This practice of destroying such works was widespread; Haudenosaunee curator Tom Hill Sr. has even recalled rescuing a bust of Elvis from destruction in the basement of the National Gallery of Canada.[5] Cultural brokers like Houston, in an effort to control the quality of the work (as they saw it), as well as to protect the growing market for Inuit art in the South, promoted the work that aligned with the market expectations. Houston, like his contemporaries in other communities, was a white, southern settler in a position that created taste among collectors and controlled the market.

As a further example of this, works by two noted Kinngait (Cape Dorset) artists—Kananginak Pootoogook’s series of drawings on colonialism[6] and Napatchie Pootoogook’s critical look at the darker side of community life[7]—were not seen or published in southern Canada until decades later, when the transcultural ideals of the contemporary had firmly taken hold. Instead, both were famous for their depictions of Arctic wildlife and complex camp scenes from the land. Yet I believe it was in the context of that hidden body of work by these two artists, Annie Pootoogook’s uncle and mother, that her own daring stream of work would emerge. 

Annie Pootoogook, Pitseolak Drawing With Two Girls on the Bed, 2006, coloured pencil on paper. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts. 

Annie Pootoogook is the beneficiary of a significant lineage of Inuit graphic artists, including her aforementioned uncle and mother: her father, Eegyvadluk; her grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona; and many others in her family. When Pitseolak—one of the first Inuit artists to experiment with drawing—was bedridden in her final years, her granddaughters (Annie and her cousin, the artist Shuvanai Ashoona) would sit on the edge of her bed and watch her draw. When Annie finally began drawing for the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in 1997, decades later, she deliberately positioned herself within this matrilineal history, recreating that scene from her youth in some images, or referencing her grandmother’s thick black glasses, which reappear in multiple works.

Like her grandmother and mother, she also began to focus on drawing scenes out of her experiences and everyday life in Kinngait. This observational practice largely centred on smart, unpretentious interiors that expressed the personal, intimate, and mundane in the Arctic, featuring the elements of settlement houses with which all northerners are well familiar, yet which were completely foreign to the armchair Inuit art market when they suddenly appeared in galleries in the early 2000s. The houses, colloquially referred to as “matchboxes” or “512s” (for the square footage) feature bare rooms with linoleum flooring, the walls sparsely decorated with calendars, key holders, clocks, and, as in some of Annie’s works, signs that say “JESUS” or family photos. 

Pootoogook’s works reveal the many imported late‑twentieth‑century Western comforts found in northern homes, like prefab kitchen cabinets, television sets and stereo towers, but the narrative that emerges is not one of a people subjugated by the encroachment of Western culture and accoutrements. Instead, these scenes reveal how Inuit have adapted these comforts to their lifestyle. Families sit on the floor in the traditional manner of sharing food, and cut up whale and char to dip in ketchup or soya sauce, eat seal meat or palauga (“fry bread” made of flour, salt and lard) and cook on a Coleman stove found in the living room or a nylon tent.

A television set may show Inuit watching the distant Iraq War or trashy American daytime television, but is just as likely to depict Inuit watching Isuma Production’s seminal television series, Nunavut (Our Land) (1995–), wherein elders and others demonstrate such longstanding practices as hunting, cleaning and tanning hides, or fishing through a hole in the ice. Her many references to clocks and calendars serve as ironic reminders of the incommensurability of southern Euro‑Canadian and Inuit understandings of time and place. Colourful rows of men’s underwear, a bright red bra, or her many erotic scenes, also playfully defy paternalistic stereotypes of infantilised Inuit or hyper‑sexualised stereotypes of Indigenous women. In creating these works, Pootoogook challenges viewer beliefs of the North as pristine, pure, and authentic, or alternatively modernised, colonised and conquered.

Annie Pootoogook, The National, 2003, pencil, ink and coloured pencil on paper. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts. 
Annie Pootoogook, The National, 2003, pencil, ink and coloured pencil on paper. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts. 

Pootoogook’s scenes and skilful object studies are sometimes ironic, often humorous, always observational. Her images de‑exoticised the Arctic, while also highlighting the reality of how great the distance is between the daily lives of southern Canadians and their neighbours in Inuit Nunangat, and how little the South truly knows about the experience of life in the North. As Deborah Root has argued, Pootoogook’s work forces Southerners to confront their assumptions about the North and its inhabitants: “If those of us who live in the South wish to imagine the North as an essentially natural world, we find it difficult to accept that Inuit societies are in fact modern. Yes, we might recognise that Northerners have Ski‑doos and perhaps some canned goods, but when we think of the unspoiled Arctic, Jerry Springer is not what we have in mind. I can’t help but feel that what is at stake is old, colonialist belief in the so‑called benefits of civilisation. Images of pure, unmediated space allow us to maintain that fiction.”[8] 

Annie had her first solo exhibit in 2002 at Feheley Fine Arts, followed rapidly by several other high‑profile exhibitions leading to her winning the 2006 Sobey Award. She spent the summer of 2006 in Dufftown, Scotland, where she was artist‑in‑residence at the Glenfiddich Distillery “Spirit off Creativity” program, and went on to exhibit at the Basel Art Fair in Miami, Documenta12 in Kassel Germany, and the Montreal Biennale in 2007. Soon, her work began to be collected by such major institutions as the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Toronto.

As I noted in my In Memorandum in Canadian Art soon after her death, I feel that Annie’s legacy lies not only in her works but also in what she has accomplished for the many contemporary Inuit artists who will come after her.[9] By captivating the attention of the international art world, however briefly, she held open a door for other Inuit artists. Her thoughtful, humorous, satirical, witty and brave works brought in new audiences, and new understandings of what contemporary Inuit art could be, while revealing the reality of life in the Arctic to southern audiences that had long admired, but never really known, the true North.

Annie Pootoogook at the Sobey Art Awards in 2006, Courtesy Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Photo: Denis



  1. ^ See Igloliorte, Heather, ‘Arctic Culture / Global Indigeneity’ in Lynda Jessup, Erin Morton and Kirsty Robertson (eds) Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada, Kingston: McGill, Queen’s University Press, 2014, pp. 150–170; and Heather Igliolorte, ‘The Inuit of Our Imagination’ in Gerald McMaster (ed) Inuit Modern, Toronto: Douglas and McIntrye Press, 2010. pp. 41–49
  2. ^ For an introduction to these histories of the colonisation of the Canadian Arctic, see Ipellie, Alootook, ‘The Colonization of the Arctic’, in Gerald McMaster and Lee-Ann Martin (eds), Indigena: Contemporary Native Perspectives, Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1992); Frank J. Tester and Peter Kulchyski, Tammarniit (Mistakes): Inuit Relocation in the Eastern Arctic 1939–63, Vancouver: UBC Press, 1994; Heather Igloliorte, ‘We Were So Far Away': The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools, Ottawa: The Legacy of Hope Foundation, 2010; and Kristen Norget, ‘The Hunt for Inuit Souls: Religion, Colonization, and the Politics of Memory’, in Gillian Robinson (ed), The Journals of Knud Rasmussen: A Sense of Memory and High-Definition Storytelling, Montreal: Isuma Productions, 2008
  3. ^ The word Qallunaat is the Inuktitut term that refers to Europeans and later to Euro-Canadians and other non-Inuit that came to the Arctic. Interestingly, Minnie Aodla Freeman has explained that this does not translate to “light-skinned people” or “strangers” as one might expect, but could mean either “people with beautiful eyebrows” or “people with beautiful manufactured material.” Odette Leroux, Marion E. Jackson and Minnie Aodla Freeman, Inuit Women Artists: Voices from Cape Dorset, Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2003, 15–16.
  4. ^ For more on the mid-century development of modern Inuit sculpture and the art market, particularly under James Houston, see H. H. Graburn Nelson, ‘The Discovery of Inuit Art: James A. Houston-Animateur’, Inuit Art Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 3–5; and Kristen K. Potter, ‘James Houston, Armchair Tourism, and the Marketing of Inuit Art’. In W. Jackson Rushing III (ed), Native American Art in the Twentieth Century: Makers, Meanings, Histories, Routledge, 1999, pp. 39–56, 2001, pp. 191–208
  5. ^ Tom HIll, ‘Indian Art in Canada: A Historical Perspective’ in Elizabeth McLuhan and Tom Hill (ed), Norval Morrisseau and the Image Makers, Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1984, p. 19
  6. ^ Robert Kardosh, ‘The Other Kananginak Pootoogook’, Inuit Art Quarterly, 22(1), 2007, pp. 10–18
  7. ^ In 2000, Leslie Boyd Ryan conducted interviews with the artist on her more than three hundred autobiographical drawings owned by the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. Janet Berlo has written about some of these works in detail. Janet Catherine Berlo, ‘Autobiographical Impulses and Female Identity in the Drawings of Napatchie Pootoogook’, Inuit Art Quarterly 8(4), 1993
  8. ^ Deborah Root, ‘Inuit Art and the Limits of Authenticity’, Inuit Art Quarterly 23, no.2, Summer 2008), pp. 25
  9. ^ Heather Igloliorte, ‘Annie Pootoogook: 1969–2016’, Canadian Art online, 27 September 2016:

Heather Igloliorte is an Inuk art historian and curator. She is from Nunatsiavut, Labrador, and currently resides in Montreal, Quebec, where she holds a Concordia University Research Chair in Indigenous Art History and Community Engagement.