Photography remains an underdeveloped art form among the Canadian Inuit, at least in comparison to stone-carving, drawing and printmaking. Certainly Inuit artists have used photographs as source images for, say, their drawings. But as a medium in and of itself, it has attracted far fewer professional practitioners, Cape Dorset's Jimmy Manning being perhaps the most salient example.
It's therefore something of a salutary surprise to see Ottawa-based Barry Pottle's Awareness Series at Toronto's Feheley Fine Arts, one of the country's longest-running purveyors of fine Inuit art. Not only is the series an exhibition of colour photographs, 19 in total, the ensemble has a decidedly conceptual/historical underpinning, rather than being a potpourri of depictions of the Arctic landscape and contemporary Inuit culture.
The inspiration here is the implementation in 1944 of the Eskimo Identification Tag system by the Canadian government. I confess that prior to my recent visit to Feheley I knew nothing about this regime, which, until its end in 1969, saw federal authorities hand out identification discs to every Inuk living in the Western and Eastern Arctic. Each disc was about 2.5 centimetres in diameter, made of hard cardboard or leather and sienna-like in colour. The expectation was that each Inuk would keep the disc, which had a hole punched in its top, on his or her person at all times.
One side of the disc was embossed in its centre with a black image of the seal of the Crown, with the words "Eskimo Identification Canada" circling the perimeter. The other side had a line of code beginning with either the letter "E" (for Eastern Arctic) or "W" (for Western Arctic), followed by a number representing the community or region where the individual was living. (A "6," for example, indicated the Pangnirtung/Broughton Island region.) Completing the code was a set of identification numbers specific to the Inuk carrying the disc. (If you didn't have the disc on you, it was considered wise to have memorized the line of code.)
Why was this done? For bureaucratic reasons mostly. Federal agents deemed Inuit names to be too long, difficult to spell and frustrating to pronounce.
In addition, Inuit naming traditions were complex. There was no gender specificity, no surnames. Women didn't take the family name of their husbands upon marriage. Children would carry several names for a time, then discard or change them as their personalities became more fixed.
Pottle's presentation is the essence of matter-of-fact simplicity, restraint even, and all the more powerful for that. On the north wall of the Feheley space he's hung eight framed, enlarged photographs of individual discs, 51 cm by 61 cm, the identification code face out, each disc placed against a textured yellow background. To the east there's a photograph of a smiling woman, Leena Alivaktuk of Ottawa, flashing her disc, which she's made into a pendant; bracketing this image – which Pottle has titled Very Proud Inuk – are two photographs, one of a hooped collection of discs with the numbers facing out, the other a hooped collection stamped with the seal of the Crown. On the south wall, directly opposite the disc portraits, are headshots – portraits – of seven or eight Inuit women and men who, with greater and lesser degrees of acceptance, were enrolled in the ID system.
"Exhibiting both the E-numbers and portraits of my fellow Inuit gives me the opportunity to bridge the gap between a number and a person," to juxtapose subject with object(ification), cardboard with flesh and blood, notes Pottle, who was born in 1961, in what was then northern Labrador (now Nunatsiavut). It was a region that didn't employ the tag system since its introduction occurred when Newfoundland and Labrador was still a British colony. Pottle, largely self-taught as what he likes to call "a contemporary urban Inuit photographer," has called Ottawa home for the last 30 years, graduating in 1997 with a degree in aboriginal studies from Carleton University.
A version of the Awareness Series originally was included as part of Decolonize Me, an exhibition of work by six aboriginal artists, organized almost five years ago, that toured a total of eight Canadian public institutions. What's audacious on Feheley's part is to have recognized the Awareness Series as a conceptually integrated whole, to be displaying it as such and to be selling the images in an edition format (in this case, 15 editions of 19 digital prints, each priced at $8,000). As Pottle observes in his artist statement: "This exhibition has afforded me [the] opportunity … to develop my vision for Inuit photography as a new art form, a contemporary medium, in essence, a new canon."
Admittedly, some viewers may find the equipoise between aesthetic and content that Pottle achieves in Awareness a touch too dispassionate. After all, we're talking cultural insensitivity here, aren't we? And bureaucratic conformity. And colonialism. And dehumanization. And all the legacies thereof.
Very true. However, Pottle's concern is less with drafting a manifesto or pleading for a particular response than creating a work that lets the viewer proceed to his or her own feelings and thoughts. So while it's disturbing to see these blown-up representations of the discs, it's also heartening to observe how, in many instances, the Inuit found ways to, well, personalize them. As the exhibition illustrates, sometimes they did this by penning or pencilling their own names, either in English or with Inuktitut characters or both, or by including information such as birth dates. The show also should prompt reflection on the manifestations of the bureaucratization of non-Inuit lives in the last 60 years. A glance at the contents of my own wallet, for example, reveals a welter of plastic cards festooned with digits and, often, mug shots, all of which I use without question, and none of which I have chosen to personalize.
The Awareness Series by Barry Pottle is at Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto through May 28 (feheleyfinearts.com)