On Sept. 19, Annie Pootoogook was found dead in the Rideau River, near Ottawa. But while her death is still under investigation, her influence on the world of Inuk art is unmistakeable.
Pootoogook’s string of artistic successes over the past decade have transformed Inuit art, by using pencil and crayon, she created a window into the lives of the modern Inuit people.
Pootoogook grew up in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Her grandmother was also an artist, her mother a graphic artist and her father a carver.
Pootoogook became widely recognized in her own right for her colour pencil drawings depicting realist images from every day Inuit life.
Her works convey both the celebrations and the most tragic moments of life as an Indigenous person in today’s Canada.
Her personal and emotional stories are present in every shape, line and pencil mark of her drawings.
For instance, in one drawing, entitled Memory of My Life: Breaking Bottles (2002), Pootoogook depicts a young woman smashing glass behind a house.
The weight of the subject matter juxtaposed with the relatively simple style of illustration is a jarring depiction of the normalcy of Pootoogook’s struggle with alcohol and the violence that were a constant forces in her community.
The stories in her work draw a legacy of an influential family of artists. Another piece, entitled Glasses, Pen, Pencil and Eraser (2006) is a portrait her artistic grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona.
The piece deftly demonstrates the complex stories behind ordinary still-life objects. A pair of black glasses, a single pen, a single pencil and a white eraser are drawn on a table in the piece.
As simple as these objects are, there’s an underlying message that stems from Pootoogook’s family history.
Her grandmother wore similar glasses to those shown in the piece and the drawing tools represent the objects through which she expressed herself.
The piece is symbolic of the close relationship she shared with her grandmother as both an artist and a matriarchal figure.
It was powerful drawings like these that won her the prestigious Sobey’s Art Award in 2006, a contemporary art prize for young Canadian artists.
Pootoogook’s minimalist style starkly stands out next to her contemporaries of other Indigenous artists’ common use of bright colours and cultural objects to portray their subject matter.
Her unique style spoke with a new voice, one that can’t be forgotten in the story of Canada’s north despite her loss.
Pootoogook didn’t shy away from heavy or uncomfortable topics.
Her drawings transformed Inuit art as she boldly tackled her subject matter with delicate pastel colours and soft pencil lines.
As Canadian university students, we have a responsibility to remember her as a pillar in Canadian visual art.
While her early death leaves us brokenhearted, the legacy of vibrant art she left behind will make an indelible mark on the Canadian cultural landscape.
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