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In 2006, Pootoogook won the Sobey Art Award
In 2006, Pootoogook won the Sobey Art Award

visual arts

A revolutionary Inuit artist’s life imitates her art, darkly Add to ...

After a long hiatus, one of Canada’s most important artists, the 2006 winner of the prestigious $50,000 Sobey Art Award, a star at the 2007 Documenta showcase in Germany, the subject of at least two documentaries, has resumed her art-making and is selling completed pencil-crayon drawings in Ottawa.

Unfortunately, the drawings are being sold by their creator, Baffin Island-born Annie Pootoogook, for reportedly as little as $25, $30 or $40 to passersby near a Shoppers Drug Mart on Rideau Street – a far cry from the $2,000 to $2,500 that veteran Toronto art dealer Patricia Feheley could command for Pootoogook’s best work as few as five years ago.

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Pootoogook is destitute and homeless. Her days are spent on the streets with her boyfriend of two years, 49-year-old William Watt, their nights outside and out of sight (mostly) near the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Dr. To complicate matters, Pootoogook, at 43, is, according to one Ottawa social worker familiar with her situation, six months pregnant with her third child, a girl.

It’s a situation, in short, that could easily find itself depicted in a Pootoogook drawing or series of drawings – the latest instalment in what one curator describes as the “sad and complicated tale” of an artist who first attracted the attention of connoisseurs and curators south of the Arctic Circle eight or nine years ago.

At the time, she was living in the famed Inuit artistic hotbed of Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

Her matter-of-fact, almost deadpan depictions of contemporary Inuit life, be it of a husband beating his wife, men watching porn on television, families shopping or women beading, were occasionally raw, but also a refreshing, even revolutionary, rupture with the tradition of soapstone carvings and silk-screened prints of owls that most Canadians associate with Inuit art. That the art also drew on Pootoogook’s own experiences with alcoholism, sexual and drug abuse and “really destructive and shattered relationships” made the art all the more poignant. The work also gained Pootoogook recognition as an artist on her own, rather than as part of an ‘Inuit ghetto.’

About five years ago, Pootoogook decided to leave Cape Dorset for Ottawa, in the wake of her successes with the Sobey, Documenta and a highly acclaimed solo exhibition in 2006 at The Power Plant in Toronto. However, all the exposure and attention seemed to have a deleterious effect on both her lifestyle and her artistic output. Indeed, in an interview last month, Feheley confessed that “the last time I had an original drawing from Annie was probably three and a-half years ago ... I think she’s still reeling from that time period ... [when] everybody wanted a piece of her.”

Understandably, with fall looming, Pootoogook and Watt are reportedly keen to get off the streets and into some kind of housing. But two months after their situation was revealed by an Ottawa newspaper and a magazine published out of Yellowknife, the couple remains homeless. It hasn’t been for lack of effort on the part of social workers and associates, including former Governor-General Michaelle Jean, who has been involved in efforts to find them shelter. Unfortunately, Pootoogook and Watt have never lived common-law at a permanent address, usually a primary criterion for such support. Moreover, the Ottawa Citizen reports, Pootoogook has lost her birth certificate. At the same time, while the couple claim they haven’t touched drugs or drink since mid-June, they’re reportedly reluctant to undergo substance or mental-health counselling.

Pootoogook, too, “doesn’t want to go back north,” according to Nancy Campbell, associate curator of special projects at the Art Gallery of Ontario and, in 2006, curator of the much-lauded Toronto solo show. “It’s problematic up there as well, of course. But at least up north [the West Baffin Island Co-operative, which since 1959 has been one of the major supporters and suppliers of Inuit art] would manage her, take care of her. But she’s suspicious of all that now.

“Going south wasn’t the only factor that has led to her life [being] this way,“ Campbell added. “Annie’s not the only Inuit to want to go down south and live an easier life but isn’t really emotionally prepared to do that,” or has only the most “rudimentary understanding of career-building. You can’t blame her for wanting to try but sometimes it does end up in a dead-end situation.”

Both Campbell and Feheley believe Pootoogook can come back. Pootoogook’s contribution to Canadian art history, “certainly to Inuit art history is significant,” Campbell noted. “Even if Annie never makes another drawing, I think she will certainly stand as one of the most significant artists of this generation.”

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