New book details how Annie Pootoogook almost denied Sobey award by some jurors

Playing Nintendo by Annie Pootoogook.

Some members of the Canadian art establishment tried to prevent the late Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook from winning the career-changing Sobey Art Award in 2006 because she had received no formal art education, a new book claims.

Wayne Baerwaldt, former director of Calgary’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery, was on the Sobey jury that year. In the book Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice by Toronto curator and academic Nancy Campbell, Baerwaldt reveals how the self-taught Pootoogook was almost deemed unfit to win the award.

“There were so many people on the jury at that time who were resistant to Annie winning,” Baerwaldt says in Cutting Ice. “They said because she was from the North she wasn’t ‘informed’ enough. She hadn’t been exposed to modernism and hadn’t had formal training at art college like other artists did. For me, that was like listening to some 19th century discourse.”

Baerwaldt does not name the jurors, usually a group of prominent curators, artists and gallerists, opposed to giving the award to Pootoogook. But he does explain that the bias against her sprang partially from the notion that Inuit art is “commercial” whereas art from the south is more “pure.”

Indeed, Inuit art production was very much driven by economic considerations more than half a century ago when soapstone carvings started being shipped en masse to southern markets. But Inuit art evolved over the years to the point that, by this century, artists such as Pootoogook started portraying the reality of their day-to-day life rather then some romanticized, mythical version of the Arctic. Pootoogook’s drawings portraying modern Inuit life had more in common with her non-Inuit contemporaries in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver than with Inuit predecessors from her hometown of Cape Dorset on Baffin Island.

In the end, Baerwaldt’s point of view prevailed and Pootoogook won the $50,000 award given to the country’s best artist aged 40 or younger. The award changed her life and changed Inuit art.

“As the winner of the Sobey Art Award in 2006, Annie Pootoogook effectively broke through a particularly impenetrable glass ceiling — she won not as ‘an Inuit artist’ but as a contemporary artist of international importance,” says Ian Dejardin, director of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection at Kleinburg, near Toronto.

At the McMichael, an exhibition of Pootoogook’s coloured pencil dawings curated by Nancy Campbell and also called Cutting Ice, opened Sept. 2 and was scheduled to continue until Feb. 11. The book was to hit stores Feb. 6, serving as a companion publication, rather than as a catalogue.

Portrait of Annie Pootoogook, June 8, 2004
Photo courtesy William B. Ritchie.

The book tells the story of Pootoogook’s life and art, includes many reproductions of her work, including some of her lesser-known erotic drawings, and shows how her art was a turning-point that was a huge influence on other Inuit artists, among them, Shuvinai Ashoona, Pootoogook’s cousin and her successor as the ‘It Girl’ of Inuit art.

The Sobey award propelled the intensely shy Pootoogook into international stardom. Everyone seemed to want a piece of her. She was overwhelmed.

Even before 2006, Pootoogook had battled substance and domestic abuse. In her post-Sobey life when she left the familiar environment of Cape Dorset, eventually for Ottawa, her alcoholism and mental health issues increased. She became homeless. And then in 2016, she mysteriously drowned in the Rideau River at age 47.

Pootoogook, one of 10 children, was born in Kinngait, otherwise known as Cape Dorset, into a prominent artistic family. Annie’s parents were the artists Napachie Pootoogook and Egeevudluk Pootoogook. Her grandmother was the renowned artist Pitseolak Ashoona. As a baby, Annie was, according to Inuit custom, given the same name as an older sister who had died in a fire.

Annie attended elementary school in Cape Dorset and then moved to Iqaluit for high school. “It was in Iqaluit that Annie developed a dependency on drugs and embarked on a series of dysfunctional and often dangerous relationships with men,” writes Campbell. “To the relief of family and friends, she returned to Kinngait in 1990 where she would be close to her family and community.”

As a young woman, Annie had two sons, both who were adopted out. While in Ottawa, she gave birth to a girl, who was also adopted out.

Watching Hunting Shows by Annie Pootoogook.

Pootoogook began drawing seriously in 1997 alongside other artists from Dorset, determined to reveal in a simple and straight forward manner the difficult social and economic realities of today’s North — the violence, the substance abuse, and the lack of a consistent social safety net, says Campbell. “Her fellow artists were both perplexed and fascinated by her personal approach and contemporary content.” Some of them were inspired to create similar art.

After Pootoogook’s death, Campbell visited Kinngait and spoke with many of Annie’s friends and family, including brothers Cee and Goo. The consensus was that if Annie had come home to Kinngait she could have had a better life.

Inuit art scholar Norman Vorano of Queen’s University in Kingston says Pootoogook’s contribution to Canadian and Inuit art history is significant. Appreciating work by Pootoogook and those she inspired allows us to “move beyond the old colonial lens, when Inuit were seen as belonging to a distant past, living outside the present.”

That’s quite an accomplishment for an artist once denigrated for lacking formal art education.

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