The 47-year-old Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook was found dead in the Rideau River earlier this week, after several years of living on the street in the nation's capital. When the news came, there was about it a kind of grim inevitability.
Having emerged into the southern imagination in 2006, with her startling solo exhibition at Toronto's Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, her rise had come a little later in life (she was 37 at the time), but it was a rocket launch. In that same year, Ms. Pootoogook won the $50,000 Sobey Art Award, going on to represent Canada at the prestigious documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany in 2007. In just a year, she had become one of a handful of indigenous artists to achieve international acclaim in the accelerating global discussion on post-colonialism.
By then, like other Canadian First Nations and Inuit artists who have achieved wide fame before her (from Norval Morrisseau, Bill Reid and Carl Beam to Zacharias Kunuk and Brian Jungen), Ms. Pootogook had been elevated to that most vexed of cultural roles: the public exemplar of indigeneity, suddenly finding herself an ambassador from a persecuted culture. She would, simultaneously, begin negotiating a path forward in that persecutor's art world. Canada extolls her native artists, and loves to promote them, even as our government denies indigenous people their civil rights and traditional entitlements. The opportunity is great for such artists, blinking before the glare of the cameras, but so is the strain of making sense of it all.
It may be a while before the true nature of Ms. Pootoogook's death is understood, and it is certainly not for us to say she should never have taken that wild ride through that world of art and media and commerce. She had her glory days, and when we look at the legacy of work she left behind, the pleasure and satisfaction she enjoyed in communicating about her Northern world is palpable. Following in the footsteps of her mother, the artist Napachie Pootoogook – who late in her life had recorded the hardships of women's lives in traditional Inuit culture on the land – Ms. Pootoogook brought her own honest and sincere character to her portrayals.
Her imagery was wide-ranging, from depictions of alcoholism, domestic abuse and personal demons to the glory of a new shiny freezer at the Cape Dorset co-op, the lazy pleasures of watching cartoons on TV with the kids, or having a smoke with a friend. One drawing might document a dinner of fish sticks, another the cutting up of a dead seal for "country food."
While she created the occasional drawing of outdoor pursuits like hunting and fishing, Ms. Pootoogook's preferred realm was the great indoors of doily-covered sofas, plastic wall clocks and fuzzy carpets. These rooms, though modest and sparsely furnished, are cozy and well-ordered places, with ceiling and page top co-ordinated compositionally in a way that evokes a brightly lit, homey captivity.
Ms. Pootoogook's hard-hitting disclosures of human suffering were challenging to stereotype (Inuit art, before her, was more a matter of dancing bears and happy Inuit baby mamas in beaded amauti), but equally so, in a way, were her drawings of Inuit people engaged in a daily life very much like our own. She recorded a hybrid culture, revealing the connections between us. Always, the work was organized by a principle of declarative frontality, straight up. "I cannot draw anything that I myself did not experience," she once said.
When the bad stories happen, we in the south glance away, or worse, shake our heads in pity.
But, looking at Ms. Pootoogook's work, might we not feel instead an admiration for what we discover there? Her drawings express her resilience and capacity for joy in life, her imagination, her courage and lack of self-pity, her playful spirit, her deep connection to the artistic lineage of her family, to the tight-knit community in Cape Dorset where she lived for most of her life. Only when one takes stock of all this can one appreciate the spirit that has been lost. I think we owe her that.
An earlier version of this storied reported that Annie Pootoogook was found in the Ottawa River. In fact, it was the Rideau River. It also stated that her mother was Napachie Ashoona. In fact, her mother is Napachie Pootoogook.