The Inuktitut word “akunnittinni” basically means “between us” and the “us” is the family of Pitseolak Ashoona, a famous Inuk artist and printmaker, her daughter Napachie Pootoogook and grand-daughter Annie Pootoogook. Kinngait is the Inuktitut word for Cape Dorset in Nunavut. Cape Dorset became a settlement in 1913 after the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post, whites moved in to make the settlement permanent and Inuit culture slowly changed as caribou hunting declined.
The arts and crafts were promoted as an income as it was thought the subsistence life would fade and be replaced by Christianity and industry. In the 1960’s artist James Houston opened a print-making co-op in Cape Dorset/Kinngait to develop the creative arts and crafts that the Inuit had been encouraged to produce. Pitseolak Ashoona became one of the more famous artists producing 9000 drawings and prints until she died in 1983. She bore 17 children, some who went on to become artists, printmakers and sculptors. Her husband died in an epidemic and Ashoona raised her family on the income of her art at Kinngait, which she produced until she could no longer could. She won numerous awards, her work was collected and catalogued, and she published a book which the National Film Board of Canada made into a documentary.
Ashoona’s daughter Napachie Pootoogook married, started a family and moved to Cape Dorset to continue the family tradition of printmaking at the Kinngait Studios (West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative). She participated in the acrylic painting/drawing workshops established by Co-operative in 1976. There, she became interested in landscape, western notions of composition and life drawing. Like her mother, Napachie produced until her passing in 2002, working directly in the lithographic medium.
Napachie’s daughter, Annie Pootoogook began drawing in 1997, becoming a prolific graphic artist and quickly rising up to become one of Canada’s top artists and the leading contemporary Inuit graphic artist. She documented her modern times like Ashoona did those old Inuit days, but that meant there were no arctic animals or scenes of nomadic existence, her art wasn’t about life on the ice and old legends. Annie depicted all aspects of the modern life that surrounded her. From 2003 she quickly made waves, a major solo exhibit at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery (in Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre), winning the Sobey Art Prize for Canada’s top young artist, and a solo show in 2010 at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. When Annie was invited to Documenta 2007 in Kassel Germany, she participated as a modern artist and not as an Inuit artist which was unprecedented.
All this success in a short time affected Annie Pootoogook and although the media was quick to describe her rise and fall, her life story has become a recounting of issues like violence, trauma and addiction that are prevalent in modern indigenous communities. There are at least 4 books on her art and a short film documentary “Annie Pootoogook” when she was at her peak but there is so much unsaid on how artists can be exploited and how success is truly relative. The system in place now with northern Cooperatives producing and southern Galleries marketing can develop and nurture talented artists, but critics point out it started as a paternalistic system to replace the old subsistence culture with jobs and income but that social problems soon followed.
First Nations curator (now with Documenta 14) Candice Hopkins said that she still considers Annie one of the best modern Native Artists, that she is touch with her and Annie is still drawing and misses her northern home. Ms. Hopkins explained, “When she won the Sobey Award I don’t think that they were aware of the pressures that this would put on her life living in the small community of Cape Dorset and the need to also use these funds to support her extended family. As a very private person I don’t think that she appreciated all of the attention that comes with success, which is part of the reason that she moved to Ottawa.”
It is amazing but to be totally expected that a family of Native Inuit women became artists and visionaries and were able to fully exploit resources available to them. Each of them had seen firsthand how common and brutal the issues of domestic violence were among their families and communities. This came out especially in the art of Napachie Pootoogook, who covered topics not usually seen in the “commercial Native art” that was being promoted by the cultural agencies of Canada. Things like men dominating and abusing women, men loaning their wives in exchange for white trader supplies, infanticide, cannibalism, some things were witnessed while some were passed on as stories.
Andrea Hanley, is Membership and Program Manager for IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, and curated “Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait”.
“To me as the curator, this exhibition serves as a reflection on the role of narrative between three generations of Indigenous women, all from one family. I am drawn to this strong family voice within a tribal context. It truly is contemporary Indigenous feminist discourse at its finest. Standing in the gallery allows the visitor to really feel the conversation between these women, the grandmother, the mother and daughter. Regarding Annie’s work, it really captures a very contemporary moment in time. I love her pop references and items like her grandmother’s glasses which stand alone in beautiful elegance.”
Amber-Dawn Bear Robe is a Visiting Faculty in Art History and Cinematic Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I asked her how Inuit Art became popular, and marketed to the point of commodification. “James Houston with the support of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild of Canada, the Canadian government and the Hudson Bay Company developed a Native art program, the West Baffin Island Co-operative. A large market for Inuit Art (soapstone carving and prints) was developed and controlled, as never before seen. Kristen K Potter coined the term “Armchair Tourism” – an individual can make a narrative and collect Inuit art while objectifying a culture, having an “authentic” experience of the North and imagined encounter with the Inuit experience without ever leaving comfort of one’s home.”