Annie Pootoogook: I'm Not Even Sad About That Drawing I Did

The art world is mourning the loss of Annie Pootoogook — earlier this week her body was found in the Ottawa river. Undoubtedly this tragedy will increase her renown, the burst of acclaim she accrued a decade ago with a string of international successes; appreciation of art has always flourished posthumously. But Annie's drawings have already altered the visual code of Inuit graphic art. Her work captured the contemporary life of an Inuk woman as it is, unflinchingly and unashamed. Through candid self-representation she let the mundane, the brutal, and the ecstatic co-exist without contradiction. Whatever the circumstances of her death, her work will continue to be admired for its tongue-in-cheek humour and sensitive introspection Annie’s drawings refused to pander to the Inuit art market's persistent romanticism; cutesy animals, unsullied landscapes and outdated ways of life have long been emblazoned across calendars and tea towels in museum gift-shops. Her choreographed interior spaces describe an emphatically contemporary Cape Dorset, relentlessly characterised by the markers of modernity: televisions, Nintendos, packaged food, ski-doos, clocks, radios and power outlets. At first, Annie's depictions of ubiquitous household objects and consumer products are reassuringly familiar. Upon closer inspection, certain details reflect the neo-colonial realities of daily Arctic life: the ‘JESUS’ sign which hangs on the wall in The National, the exorbitant price of the groceries in Cape Dorset Freezer. Annie's 2006 Sobey Art Award and subsequent solo exhibition at the Toronto Power Plant marked a shift in the appreciation of Inuit art as a dynamic aesthetic practice rather than existing in an allochronic, culturally defined stasis. Often with autobiographical content, Annie's drawings capture many of the bleak everyday hardships of Inuit experience: domestic violence (Man Abusing His Partner), alcohol abuse (Memory of My Life: Breaking Bottles), malnutrition (Ritz Crackers) or the sedentary lifestyle of the unemployed (Dr Phil). Speaking about Man Abusing His Partner in Marcia Connolly's documentary, Annie said: "I'm not even sad about that drawing I did, because it was me, was my life. The guy was trying to hit me with the bat." The drawing depicts Annie's moment of absolute terror before an irrevocable act of aggression. The tableau is framed by Annie's customary single line to delineate the floor and walls, rendering the space all the more claustrophobic and the violence more intimate. Perspectival inconsistencies draw the eye to the chaos and heighten the sense of domestic destabilisation. Two coats hanging side by side suggest that there was once harmony within the room, sleeves almost touching. Annie once described how through drawing she has the "ability to throw memories away, out of my mind - so I won't think about them anymore. Drawing really lifts my life, a lot". Beyond unhappy memories, Annie gave equal weight to good times in her work, frequently drawing her family, community and romantic relationships. Annie’s drawings were groundbreaking in their engagement with an image of Inuit eroticism, confronting the stereotypes and paternalistic legislature which have perpetuated an image of Inuit peoples as asexual or infantile. Always, Annie's erotic drawings emphasised sexuality and pleasure, stabilising a sense of female identity in a social climate in which Indigenous women fall victim to so much denigration and abuse. The composition of Making Love replicates that of the couple in Man Abusing his Partner; one figure throws their arms back whilst the other shrinks below. In contrast to the brutality witnessed in the earlier work, Annie portrays a scene of mutual sexual fulfilment - a love-making that is consensual and enjoyed. The woman on top with lips parted in pleasure exudes self-possession. Annie recovered female sexual enjoyment as something to be celebrated autonomous to colonial narratives of patriarchy, disempowerment and domestic abuse on both intimate and legislative scales. Annie censored nothing from her drawings: from the most banal, to the sexually explicit, to the jarringly violent. Her style is instantly recognisable; idiosyncratic closed contour drawings and neat hatching tie disparate themes into a coherent whole. Annie Pootoogook established a contemporary Inuit aesthetic which through incisive observation and unabashed frankness demonstrated a profound understanding of life's complexities and sweetness.

© 2020 by Verity Seward