No story in Canadian art history is quite as tragic as that of Annie Pootoogook. Celebrated for her simplistic drawings of everyday life in Northern Canada, she captured her home life in detail. She depicted her experiences, from the mundane to the frightening, in ways that no other Inuk artist had. Annie shot to fame and won prestigious awards for her work, and as an artist, she was incredibly successful. Personally, she struggled with a violent past, which followed her even as she tried to escape to Ottawa. Her life was heartbreakingly cut short far too early.
From a Celebrated Line of Artists
Annie Pootoogook was born in what was then known as Cape Dorset and is now Kinngait Nunavut. Kinngait identifies itself as the Capital of Inuit Art and has a long history of producing Inuit sculptors and artists. In 1957, the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources sponsored a program that taught contemporary techniques to Inuit artists, allowing the community a way to generate income after the local fur trade declined. The program led to the formation of a co-operative in 1959 that bought, produced, and sold the Inuit artwork, while distributing profits to the local artists. Annie’s uncle, Kananginka Pootoogook, was one of the first collaborators and worked with artist James Houston who was sent by the Canadian government to head the project. Kananginka would go on to become the first president of the West Baffin Eskimo cooperative.
Much of Annie’s family worked out of the co-op, including her mother, grandmother, and cousin, and she was influenced at an early age by a variety of mediums. Most of the work coming out of the co-op was centered on traditional themes of nature and Inuit mythology, which was romanticized and sought after by southern consumers. The artwork produced at the co-op has been featured on stamps and is frequently gifted from Canadian politicians to visiting dignitaries.
A Glimpse into Annie’s Life
When Annie began making pen and colored pencil drawings at 28, she was cautioned by the co-op that her works would not sell well, given her propensity to draw everyday experiences from the home life of a Northern woman. These were not the drawings of sled dogs and owls that depicted an idyllic northern life. Annie’s childlike drawings were often in stark contrast with the dark subject matter of domestic abuse, early exposure to drugs, violence, and alcoholism. Her works often included clocks, and seemed important to Annie, though she never confirmed why this was.
Annie was originally reluctant to admit that the scenes she drew were memories of her own experiences. Man Abusing His Partner(2002) depicts an abusive relationship with a man that she had in the 1990s. The scene shows a woman locked in a house, windows nailed shut and being hit with a length of wood. The woman screams to no avail.
Not all of Annie’s works were this dark. Many showed traditional Inuit activities, but in a different light from her Cape Dorset predecessors. Instead of showing the majesty of the seal hunt (such as Seal Hunt, by Kiakshuk), she opted to focus on what happened inside the house, like Eating Seal at Home (2001) or Three Men Carving a Seal, Three Women Cleaning (2006).
Sometimes she showed the effect of technology, and consumerism, on the traditional northern way of life. Annie was fascinated by how television news enters people’s awareness in the North the same way it does in the South. Her best-known works contain TV screens, Nintendo consoles, or even porn, capturing a still picture of what is playing in the background at the moment she is portraying.
Rise to Fame
Supported by the co-op and an art buyer named Jimmy Manning, Annie began to sell her drawings and sustain herself working as an artist. In 2000, Annie’s drawings were brought to the Toronto arm of the co-op, Dorset Fine Arts. Art dealer Patricia Feheley came across her work through Manning and was immediately stunned by Annie’s imagery and direct style. Feheley took a chance and asked for six paintings, which she included in a 2001 group exhibition that featured artists from Kinngait.
This escalated to a solo showing in 2003 Annie Pootoogook – Moving Forward which was bought out. Collectors were captivated by the original works.
In 2006 The Power Plant in Toronto exhibited another solo show, titled Annie Pootoogook. It was this exhibition that gave her national attention and led to an Artists in Residence program at the Glenfiddich distillery. She became the first Inuit artist to be nominated for the Sobey Art Award in 2006, bringing a $50,000 prize.
Struggling with the Past
An artist’s success does not preclude them from being exposed to the poverty, alcoholism, and domestic abuse, and mental health struggles that come along with that exposure. Ninety percent of the residents of Cape Dorset live in public housing, and more than half the residents rely on public assistance. Inuit in Nunavut take their own lives at nearly 10 times the rate of the rest of Canada. Another successful Cape Dorset artist, Ooloosie Saila, detailed the assault she endured from a relative on the eve of her trip to her debut show in Toronto at the Feheley Fine Arts Gallery.
Annie attempted to escape the horrors she experienced in Cape Dorset by heading to Ottawa in 2007. The combination of her past and the whirlwind successes of 2006 proved to be too much for her. In 2012, a Globe and Mail article revealed she was homeless, and selling her artwork for as little as $25 outside of a Shoppers Drug Mart. Even with Governor-General Michaelle Jean involved, social workers cited reasons such as a lost birth certificate, never having lived common-law at a fixed address with her partner, and reluctance to undergo mental-health counseling, to explain why they could not find shelter for the artist.
Annie’s body was found on September 19th, 2016 in the Rideau River. She was just 47. Days later, Ottawa police officer Sgt. Chris Hrnchiar made racially charged comments on Facebook, dismissing speculation that Annie’s death was suspicious. “Because much of the aboriginal population in Canada is just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers, living in poor conditions, etc. … they have to have the will to change, it’s not society’s fault.” Hrnchiar was the supervisor of the detective tasked with processing the scene and identifying Pootoogook. His comments give a glimpse into how the deaths of aboriginals were treated by the police.
Annie is remembered as a woman who transformed Canadian art. Speaking in 2012, the associate curator of special projects at the Art Gallery of Ontario said, “Even if Annie never makes another drawing, I think she will certainly stand as one of the most significant artists of this generation.” The Art Canada Institute chose Annie as one of Twelve Visionary Women Artists, along with Inuit artist Oviloo Tunnillie and Anishinaabekwe artist Rebecca Belmore.
In February of 2021, the Ottawa city council voted to rename a park after Annie Pootoogook after an over two-year campaign. It was approved only days after the Community and Protective Services Committee recommended the change at their meeting. The only Inuk who attended the virtual meeting, Taqralik Partridge, is quoted as saying, “It’s a great opportunity for Inuit to see themselves reflected in public spaces.… Annie, in her lifetime, probably experienced that she was not always welcome in public spaces, just because of the difficulties that she experienced. This is an opportunity to right that.”