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Annie Pootoogook (1969 – 2016)

“She was such an important artist. ... Not that there haven’t been other important Inuit artists, but I think that she has opened the door for another generation of artists to actually participate in a larger conversation about contemporary art.” (Curator Nancy Campbell)

Annie Pootoogook was raised in Cape Dorset, an Inuit settlement located on Dorset Island at the southern tip of Baffin Island in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut. Many members of her family, including her mother and grandmother, were artists.She began her art career in her late 20s and immediately challenged people’s perceptions of Inuit art.

A natural storyteller, Pootoogook created drawings of daily life. She once said she could only draw what she had lived. This included scenes of cozy domesticity watching Dr. Phil on TV, and of cutting up raw seal on the kitchen floor. It also included domestic violence, ATM cash machines, and alcoholism, which startled those who looked to Inuit art for wholesome Northern traditions.

Pootoogook first worked out of the Kinngait Studios, a co-operative that supports and buys work from artists working in Cape Dorset. Initially, there was almost no interest in her work. After sending some of her early work to the co-op’s sales team in Toronto, a stern note was sent back: “This stuff’s never going to sell,” they said. “Stop doing it.”However, Pootoogook gained the attention of The Feheley Art Gallery and held her first small exhibition in 2003—a career-changing show. The curators at Feheley were very supportive of her and her work, despite criticism.Pootoogook gained attention internationally when she won the Sobey Award in 2006 and was invited to Germany’s famous Documenta 12 art show in 2007. Her works were exhibited in major North American and Australian shows in the following years.

However, away from home and living in Montreal, she succumbed to alcoholism. She returned to Cape Dorset briefly, but it didn’t last. By 2010, she was living on the streets of Ottawa with a panhandler, William Watt. They continued an on-and-off relationship for the remaining years of her life, camping in parks or under bridges. She complained to friends and family about the way he treated her. Her friend Ookik Nakashook remembers Pootoogook telling her of a time when Watt kicked her out in the night without boots. But she stayed with Watt even though he continued to abuse her and take any money she made from her drawings.

Tragically, Pootoogook’s body was pulled from the Rideau River on the morning of September 19, 2016, a short walk from the shelter where she had been living. A shocking comment from an Ottawa officer read “And of course this has nothing to do with missing or murdered Aboriginal women ... it’s not a murder case, it’s [sic] could be a suicide, she got drunk and fell in the river and drowned who knows ... typically many Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not.” In response to these comments, an internal investigation was filed and the officer was suspended.

Many feel that it was a minor punishment for obvious racism against this vibrantly talented woman. The investigation into her death has recently been reopened.The story of Annie Pootoogook’s life was coloured by despair and tragedy, but also by extraordinary talent, positivity, strength and creativity. The troubles that weighed on her in her last years were unimaginable, yet for a long time she was able to manage them, and even to make art from them. She took her experiences, whether joyful or difficult, and made them into a body of work that changed Canadian art.

Bios by Gillian Bright & Marlene Lowden- thanks Marlene and Gillian!