Annie Pootoogook's Drawings of Contemporary Inuit Life

By Modigliani, Leah | C: International Contemporary Art, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Annie Pootoogook's Drawings of Contemporary Inuit Life


Modigliani, Leah, C: International Contemporary Art


ANNIE POOTOOGOOK'S DRAWINGS OF CONTEMPORARY INUIT LIFE

National Museum of the American Indian, New York

This summer's solo exhibition of 39 of Annie Pootoogook's drawings at the National Museum of the American Indian is a rare opportunity to see a large group of this well-known Canadian artist's work in New York. Despite her rise to fame in Canada and internationally over the last three years, this is the largest exhibition of her work so far held in the United States.

Annie Pootoogook's drawings are simple and direct representations of life in Cape Dorset, an isolated community on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Cape Dorset advertises itself as the "Capital of Inuit Art," a name partially derived from the influence and existence of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, an organization founded in 1959 to foster economic opportunities locally by marketing Inuit art to southern buyers and which has had a gallery in Toronto since 1978. Pootoogook, who comes from a family of artists, began drawing at the Co-operative when she was 28. However, unlike other Inuit artists working there, she was launched into the international world of contemporary art by enthusiastic and influential Canadian dealers and curators touting her work's ability to "challenge conventional assumptions about Inuit art" Upon reflection, Pootoogook's recent exhibition in New York inspires a number of critical questions about the context, display and critical reception of artists trained outside of the hegemonic domain of so-called Western art institutions.

The drawings on display at the National Museum of the American Indian, which date from 2001 until now, consist of graphite or ink-line drawings filled in with broad planes of coloured pencil crayon, and are executed on standard sized sheets of drawing paper. Generally, they fall into four thematic groupings: still lives of household objects (such as scissors, pens and in one case a camp stove); social groupings of two or more people inside modest homes; abstracted representations of social morays or spiritual concerns; and acts of violence, such as domestic abuse and suicide. Of these groupings, the latter has gained the most critical attention.

In Man Abusing His Partner (2001-02), a man raises a piece of lumber over his head to beat a screaming woman rising from her bed. "They are centered in a sparsely furnished room containing a TV set and a boarded-up window, and everything is coloured in muted tones of brown, grey and black. In Hanging (2003-04), a man in a white parka cuts down the yellow noose that another man has used in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Memory of My Life Breaking Bottles (2001-02) shows the artist smashing liquor bottles, the broken glass accumulating in a pile behind a small pink house. The matter-of-fact, child-like style in which these narratives of abuse and self-abuse are drawn speaks to the "everydayness" of the more painful aspects of the Inuit's long reckoning with the incursion of Western lifestyles, values and goods into their older ways of life.

Other works present scenes of social interactions between people in their homes that testify to the growing interconnectedness of the world, the passage of time and the importance of family. In Toronto Maple Leafs (2004-06), two men sit on a couch watching television. The image is named after the Toronto Maple Leafs poster and souvenir hockey stick that hang on a nearby wall along with a Canadian flag. These objects hint at a national pride that has been cultivated over time through television and trade. Televisions and clocks figure prominently in many of Pootoogook's drawings, suggesting a preoccupation with time passing.

By contrast, Composition (Gossip) (2006) is one of several drawings that are more abstract in nature. A pair of slightly open pink lips floats in white space, surround ed by a net of zigzagged and curved lines that seem to both feed and restrain the mouth. …

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