15 January 2018

'Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait'

A number of years ago, when I was doing research on Leonardo Shapiro, the avant-garde stage director about whom I’ve written several times on this blog, I looked into one of the artists he named as influences, Pudlo Pudlat (1916-92), an Inuit painter and printmaker.  (I’ve blogged about Leo a number of times for Rick On Theater; see, for example, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos),” 5 August 2009; “Cheerleaders of the Revolution,” 31 October 2009; “Brother, You’re Next,” 26 January 2010; “New York Free Theater,” 4 April 2010; “War Carnival,” 13 May 2010; “‘As It Is In Heaven,’” 25 March 2011; “Acting: Testimony & Role vs. Character,” 25 September 2013; “Shaliko’s Strangers,” 3 and 6 March 2014; “Mount Analogue,” 20 July 2014; and “Shaliko’s Kafka: Father and Son,” 5 and 8 November 2015; as well as “‘Two Thousand Years of Stony Sleep,’” an early piece of writing by Shapiro himself, 7 May 2011.)  I’d never heard of Pudlo—Inuit commonly use only one name and this is how the artist is internationally known—but as I looked more deeply into him and his art, I found an engrossing and revealing subject. 

As readers of ROT know, I fancy myself a devotee of art, so I pursued the story of Pudlo and discovered that the artist, his work, and Inuit art just interested me.  On a visit I made to Quebec City in December 2000, a center of Inuit art, and later one to Vancouver in August 2003, I learned some general facts about the art of the Inuit people, which has an interesting, and I suspect unique, history (which I’ll précis in a moment).  Ever since then, I’ve had an interest in Inuit art so when I read last August that the George Gustav Heye Center, the National Museum of the American Indian branch in lower  Manhattan, was hosting an exhibit of works by three Canadian Inuit artists, I suggested to my friend Diana (who’s my usual theater companion but who also has an abiding interest in art and art museums) that we make a trip downtown to see it. 

We left the visit until the end of run of Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait (10 June 2017-8 January 2018) and didn’t get down to Bowling Green until Sunday, 7 January.  (We were further delayed, beyond plain, old procrastination, by the nor’easter of Thursday, 4 January, the original date of our planned visit to the museum.  At the last minute on the 7th, furthermore, Diana didn’t feel well and dropped out.  I had figured she probably didn’t know Inuit art or New York’s NMAI as neither are well known to the general public.  Part of my reason for going to the show had been to introduce her to both of them, but I went downtown on my own anyway.)  

The word akunnittinni, according to Andrea R. Hanley, the exhibition curator of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts, loosely means “between us” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people.  (If you are my age or older, you are probably more used to speaking of the people of the arctic as Eskimos but, especially in Canada, the current, and preferred, name is Inuit.)  A Kinngait Family Portrait displays a family gathering among an Inuk grandmother, mother, and daughter: Pitseolak Ashoona, Napachie Pootoogook, and Annie Pootoogook. The three women “are known for illustrating life’s intimacies within their Arctic communities and families, as well as life’s challenges.”  They are the “us” in akunnittinni and what’s “between” them is what the Smithsonian’s press release characterized as a “visual conversation” with one another.

Kinngait, the Inuit name for the remote hamlet of Cape Dorset on Dorset Island in Nunavut, the Canadian territory established as an Inuit homeland in 1999, was the home of Pitseolak, Napachie, and Annie and the Ashoona-Pootoogook family of artists—a family with a strong artistic identity that has contributed significantly to the reputation of Kinngait art.  Kinngait’s nicknamed the “Capital of Inuit Art” and artists from the area are renowned worldwide for their prints, drawings, paintings, and sculptures, produced in places like the now famous Kinngait Studios since the 1940s.  Almost a quarter of the town’s working residents is employed in some aspect of the art business.

Eskimo, which is still used in the U.S., especially in Alaska, refers to several native peoples, including the Inuit.  The term Eskimo is a foreign word applied to the Inuit and other peoples by outside tribes.  Its most likely etymology is a Montagnais word meaning ‘snowshoe-lacer.’  (The Montagnais are a group inhabiting the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec and Labrador.)  In Canada, however, the word is believed to be derived from an Algonquin word that means ‘raw meat-eater,’ and although linguistically this is less likely, the belief is widely held in Canada and the word Eskimo is considered derogatory and racist.  In any case, the Canadian government officially recognizes the people of the far north, including Nunavut, as Inuit, the name these native peoples use to refer to themselves; the name Eskimo is seldom heard in Canada today.  Inuit, by the way, is plural; the singular is Inuk, which means ‘person.’  The native tongue of the Inuit, as I stated above, is Inuktitut, one of the official languages of Nunavut.

The Inuit people were a nomadic culture of hunter-gatherers in the arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska well into the 20th century.  (There are also significant populations of Inuit in Denmark and Russia.)  Following the fish and game of the far north as the ice receded, living in igloos (which means simply ‘house’ and may be made of ice and snow, corresponding to the familiar image we have, but is also commonly built from stone, sod, mud, skins, or any other convenient material), and moving from spot to spot as the hunting, weather, or terrain necessitated. 

Traveling by dogsled across land and in umiaks or the smaller kayaks across water, an Inuit family or clan could not really afford to carry much with them that wasn’t of immediate practical value in their harsh life, so decoration was minimal, and artwork, even on practical items, was uncommon.  (The 2001 Inuit-produced—also -directed and -acted—movie Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner gives a dramatic glimpse of this lifestyle.)  What little there was was carved ivory or bone.  A change occurred in about 1945, however, when the Canadian government encouraged Inuit and other native peoples to settle in towns and villages, learn cultivation and other domestic skills, and give up the nomadic life they’d known for centuries.  I won’t get into the socio-political implications of this change (except to suggest that it wasn’t entirely insensitive and cold-hearted as the world around the Inuit had changed and their subsistence existence was becoming untenable), but the sociological effect was profound.

The Canadian government saw that the move to permanent habitation in towns and villages left many Inuit without traditional livelihoods or even pastimes.  This was mostly true of the men, as the women were able to transfer their traditional responsibilities of homemaking and child-rearing from the nomadic existence to the permanent one with little significant change (except, of course, that they now got their material needs from stores instead of the wild).  The men, on the other hand, were the ones who lost their customary occupations.  Looking around for something with which to replace the lost income and work, the government lit on art and established training programs and outlets for whatever the Inuit produced, even supplying them with the materials they needed. 

In what may be one of the rare examples among artificial cultural redirection, the plan succeeded wildly.  I guess the Inuit had a hidden tribal talent for making terrific art, and they started a co-op in 1958 to market and determine the prices of their work so that they wouldn’t be ripped off by gallery owners and dealers or, in turn, cheat the buying public.  Inuit art took off in popularity and desirability in the south.  Over time, some artists became recognized, such as Pudlo (on whom I blogged on 28 September 2009) and the Ashoona-Pootoogook family, and art museums began organizing exhibitions of Inuit works.  Collectors, first in Canada then in the United States, began to buy the art.  As making art supplanted the fur trade as the region’s principal employment, whole villages lived off the art turned out in their community studios, some making it, some marketing it, some managing the studios; printmaking became a profitable concern. 

Over 70 years now, Inuit art has become established and while it started as naïve work, it now has a sophistication and dynamic that compares easily with the works of American Indian artists in, say, the Taos art colony area (coincidentally, near where Akunnittinni was organized at the IAIA).  In both cases, too, the themes and subjects developed from strict focus on traditional culture to an embrace of the whole universe around them—in the case of the Inuit, the Canada of the Europeans and the technology of the middle- and late-20th-century world.  Though many Inuit artists work in a naturalistic style, carving animals or scenes common to the Canadian north, many others work in symbolist and abstract styles that draw on indigenous images and refer to the style of Inuit art that developed in the post-World War II years (there not having been a true indigenous precursor).  The media used by Inuit artists has expanded as well, from simple carvings to sophisticated soapstone sculpture, painting, drawing, lithography, and all the forms commonly used by Western artists.  Among the most popular subjects I observed in Inuit art when I was in Quebec and later in Vancouver at the other end of the country were native animals, Inuit figures, and the mysterious and majestic inuksuit, a form nearly ubiquitous in the galleries and shops all over both cities.  (I have an Inuit sculpture entitled Inukshuk and I blogged on the subject of the carving in “Inuksuit,” posted on 10 August 2011.)

A little history of NMAI: George Gustav Heye (1874-1957) opened his private Museum of the American Indian to the public in 1922 to house and display his own collection of Native American art.  He’d started collecting in 1903 and he established the Heye Foundation in 1916 to oversee it and promote the study of Indian art and culture.  The museum was located at 155th Street and Broadway in Harlem until it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and moved to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in 1994.  The Smithsonian took over Heye’s museum in 1989 and opened the main building for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in 2004.  The George Gustav Heye Center, now a satellite of the larger NMAI, maintains its own permanent collection (based on Heye’s original holdings) and exhibits. 

The Hamilton Custom House, which also houses the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, the National Archives at New York City, and a branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is a splendid Beaux Arts building built in 1907.  It served as the U.S. Custom House in New York City until 1973 (when its customs function was moved to 6 World Trade Center) and in 1979, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) saved the building from demolition.  A restoration having been completed in 1987, the building was renamed for the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury (under whose jurisdiction customs fell until 2003) in 1990 with Moynihan’s sponsorship.  Designed by St. Paul, Minnesota, architect Cass Gilbert (1859–1934), who had once worked for McKim, Mead & White (Washington Arch, 1892; the main campus of Columbia University, 1893-1900; the Brooklyn Museum, 1895; New York’s former Pennsylvania Station, 1910; and the James Farley Post Office in Manhattan, 1913; among many other significant buildings), the custom house is architecturally stunning in its own right.  A National Historic Landmark (1976) and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (exterior and interior, 1972), the custom house on its own is worth a visit.  It’s a magnificent Beaux Arts building with many stunning architectural and artistic details (outlined in “Architecture & History” on the Heye Center webpage at http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/architecture-history/) and serves as a magnificent example of the re-purposing of historic architecture. 

According to Hanley, the art works of Pitseolak, Napachie, and Annie Pootoogook “provide a personal and cultural history of three generations of Inuit women whose art practices included autobiographical narratives and chronicled intimate and sometimes harsh memories and historically resonant moments.”  (Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait, curated by Andrea Hanley, was organized by the IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.  It appeared there at the MoCNA from 22 January through 1 April 2016.)  The Ashoona and Pootoogook works, says Hanley, “also include sardonic references to pop culture, which now infuses everyday life in Kinngait, as well as nuanced depictions of family and village life.”  Patsy Phillips, director of the IAIA, observed: “The grandmother painted more romanticized versions of the story she heard—of how the culture used to be.  The mother drew more of the darker side of the stories she heard [while] the daughter’s were much more current.”

Pitseolak (1904–1983; some accounts give her birth year as 1907 or 1908) was born on Nottingham Island (Tujajuak) in the Hudson Straights in the Northwest Territories (part if which is now Nunavut).  She spent her childhood in several camps on the south Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk) coast.  She was a member of one of the last generations of Inuit to grow up in the centuries-old traditions of the North American Inuit—or, as the artist characterized it, “long ago before there were many white men.”  She married Ashoona, a hunter, in 1922 or ’23 in a marriage arranged by her uncle after her father died about a year earlier, and she bore 17 children, only six of whom she raised to adulthood.  (Though some died as children, others, as was the custom, were raised by other Inuit families.)  Pitseolak was the matriarch of a large family of artists, including at least five children—sons Namoonai (1926-2002), Kaka (1928-96), Koomwartok (1930-84), Kiawak (1933-2014), and Ottochie Ashoona (1942-70), all sculptors, and daughter Napachie, a graphic artist—and three grandchildren—Ohitok Ashoona (b. 1952, sculptor), Shuvinai Ashoona, (b. 1961, graphic artist), and Annie Pootoogook (graphic artist).  (A note about Inuit names: Inuktitut has its own writing system, and when names and words are transliterated into English, there are often spelling variations.)  Pitseolak’s husband, Ashoona, died at 40 years of age during an epidemic in the Nettilling Lake area, near the south end of Baffin Island, in the mid-1940s (around 1944 or ’45), leaving Pitseolak to raise their young family on her own. 

Pitseolak, by then in her 50s, settled permanently in Kinngait/Cape Dorset in the early 1960’s where she was encouraged to try drawing as a way to support her family after the death of her husband.  She’s said drawing also served as an emotional support for her, and it’s little wonder that images of motherhood were central to Pitseolak’s art.  She was among the first Inuk in Kinngait to start drawing, beginning with stonecut prints, and one of the most prolific.  Despite the sad circumstances that initiated her drawing and a life of hardship, Pitseolak’s art mostly depicts a positive view of the Inuit way of life remembered from her childhood.  According to Christine Lalonde, Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, “scenes of deprivation or suffering almost never appear in her drawings,” and, indeed, the sample on exhibit at the Heye Center demonstrated this trait (which we’ll see is in contrast to the drawings of her daughter). 

(Stonecut, not to be confused with the more technically complicated lithography, is a process much like woodcut or linocut—all forms of “relief” printing—which the Kinngait printmakers have refined.  The first step is tracing the original drawing onto the smooth surface of a prepared stone.  Using India ink, the printer outlines the drawing on the stone and then chips away the areas that are not to appear in print, leaving the uncut areas raised, or in relief.  The raised area is inked using rollers and then a thin sheet of fine paper is placed over the inked surface and the paper is pressed gently against the stone by hand with a small, padded disc.  Only a single print can be made from each inking of the stone, so the edition takes time, care, and patience.) 

Remembrance of Inuit society of her youth shows up clearly in Pitseolak’s Games of My Youth (stonecut and stencil, 1978), in which four Inuk girls are at play, two of them playing an Inuit ball game while a third is hanging in mid-tackle of an opponent, and in Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins (stonecut and stencil, 1976), with its family of seven Inuit in traditional garb peering out of an igloo.  Another example of this subject is Migration towards Our Summer Camp (lithograph, 1983), a collection of images of a smiling Inuit clan on the move in traditional clothing for a trek through the tundra, wearing backpacks and carrying harpoons, accompanied by dogs and pack animals, transporting fishing and hunting gear.  The most iconic (and earliest) of Pitseolak’s works on display here was the 1969 Dream of Motherhood (color stonecut on paper), a fanciful image of a woman with long braids and her hands in the air, fingers extended, carrying two children atop her head in the hood of her parka.  (The garment is in fact an amauti, a traditional Inuit parka specifically designed for the hood to serve as a baby-carrier.)

Pitseolak made close to 9,000 drawings during her 20 years in Kinngait.  Her prints, rendered in muted, mostly earth colors, have appeared in every annual print collection since her work was first published in 1960.  Her best and most authentic drawings were of “the old Eskimo ways,” as she said, a way of life firmly imprinted on her memory.  In the conventions of Inuit art, this is known as sulijuk, ‘it is true’ or ‘it is realistic’—which indicates artists depicted elements of Inuit life as they saw it, without interpolating much of  their own imagination.  Pitseolak received several honors in her lifetime, and her work has been the subject of several projects.  In 1971, the National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary based on her book, Pitseolak: Pictures out of My Life (McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2003).  In 1974. she was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy and she received the Order of Canada in 1977.  Pitseolak died in 1983 and is buried behind the Anglican Church in Kinngait.  She had promised to work on her drawings and prints until she was no longer able, and she fulfilled the vow.  Her vast legacy of art work is currently on long-term loan at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection near Toronto where it is being photographed, documented, and exhibited.

Born at Sako, a traditional Inuit camp on the southwest coast of Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Napachie (1938–2002) was the only surviving daughter of Pitseolak; along with her four sculptor brothers, and her graphic-artist sisters-in-law, Mayureak (b. 1946,  wife of Kaka) and Sorosiluto Ashoona (b. 1941, wife of Kiawak), she was part of the prominent and renowned Inuit artist clan.  In the mid-1950s while living at Kiaktuuq, she married sculptor and printmaker Eegyvukluk Pootoogook (1931-2000), son of an important camp leader, Pootoogook (1887-1958), a graphic artist and carver who later become one of the main printers at the Kinngait Studios.  (Like her mother’s, Napachie’s marriage was arranged.)  Napachie, Eegyvukluk, and their 11 children (who included daughter Annie Pootoogook, a third-generation artist) moved to Kinngait in 1965 and, just as her mother had, took up drawing; she sold her first drawings at age 25 (1963) for $20.  Since then, Napachie’s work has been included in almost every annual collection of Kinngait prints.  She created works until her death from cancer at 64, leaving a legacy of over 5,000 prints and drawings.

Napachie used a vigorous, energetic figurative style to bring to life narrative scenes depicting both personal memories and ancient stories depicting local current, mythical, and legendary figures.  Following classes in painting and drawing at the Kinngait Studios, after 1976, she drew landscapes and interiors using notions of spatial composition of Western techniques.  Although many of her early prints and drawings presented a rhapsodic depiction of Inuit spiritual beliefs, the focus of her work since the mid-1970s, as exemplified by those featured in Akunnittinni, was more on recording the traditional home life of the Inuit people, “including,” as the exhibit text put it, “darker aspects that  were left out of her mother’s more idealistic representations.”  

Indeed, according to Will Huffman, marketing manager at Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto, the marketing division of Kinngait Studios, Napachie revealed aspects of her culture that many Inuit would have preferred not be seen by outsiders—a characteristic that reminds me of Native American artist Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), on whom I blogged on 20 March 2011.  This can be seen in 1994’s Alcohol (colored pencil and ink on paper), which depicts a woman holding a small child while handing a kneeling man a bottle of (presumably) liquor—or is she taking it away from him?  On the floor in front of the man—her husband and the father of the toddler?—is a  broken bottle.  He’s holding a fat stick (a weapon?) and his mouth is open wide as if he might be yelling at the woman, while sprawled on the floor behind him is another man, sleeping or passed out.  The reference is clearly the alcoholism that plagues Inuit (as well as other Native American) communities with hints—the stick—of the domestic violence and abuse that is also an endemic problem among Inuit.

In Male Dominance (ink and colored pencil on paper, 1995-96), Napachie presents five weeping women surrounding a man wielding a long knife; on the ground by his knee is a small bow with an arrow.  He’s looking out at us, smiling in self-satisfaction.  The six are connected to each other by a rope, symbolizing the utter dependence of Inuit women on men, who could abduct them as wives, even if they were already married.  (There is, as Hanley, who’s Navajo, puts it, a broad streak of “contemporary indigenous feminist” emphasis in all three artists’ work, but particularly Napachie’s.)  If a man desired another Inuk’s wife, he could just kill his rival and take the man’s wife for his own.  Napachie habitually incorporated inscriptions (in Inktitut, the artist’s only spoken and written tongue), and on Male Dominance, she wrote:

Aatachaliuk is scaring women to ensure his domination, before he claims them as wives, after slaying his male enemies.  He did this to hide his soft side.

Trading Women for Supplies (ink on paper, 1997-98) is a portrayal of a Caucasian captain of a whaler exchanging materials and supplies—a jacket and a duffel bag of cans and boxes—to an Inuit man in a parka for a woman.  “The captain from the bowhead whale hunting ship is trading materials and supplies for the women,” inscribed Napachie.  “As usual, the man agrees without hesitation.”  In the drawing, according to Edward J. Guarino, a retired high school teacher from Yonkers, New York, and Inuit art collector who lent some of his holdings for the show, the artist “documents the sexual exploitation of  Inuit women by men, both Inuit and non-Inuit.”

Arguably the most grotesque and shocking picture in the exhibit was Napachie’s Eating His  Mother’s Remains (ink on paper, 1999-2000).  It’s an image of exactly what the title says: a man “is chopping up and eating his mother’s rump before leaving.   He is also preparing to take the human remains by wrapping them in seal skin and using the rope to bind it.”  While cannibalism wasn’t ever part of the Inuit culture, it was practiced rarely in the event of extreme famine and Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto and an expert on Inuit art, wrote: “. . . I expect that someone had told Napachie about this particular man.” 

Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), born in Kinngait, was the daughter of Napachie and Eegyvukluk, and the granddaughter of Pitseolak.  By the time she was born, the Ashoonas and Pootoogooks were firmly in the middle class as a consequence of their artistic endeavors.  Annie began drawing in 1997 at the age of 28 and quickly developed a preference for scenes from her own life, becoming a prolific graphic artist.  In 2003, Annie’s first print, an etching and aquatint drawn on copper plate, was released.  The image, entitled Interior and Exterior (not included in the NMAI show), is a memory of the artist’s childhood, lovingly recording the particulars of settlement life in Kinngait in the 1970s.  Her first solo exhibition at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto in 2006, and winning that same year the Sobey Art Award (which came with a prize of $50,000 Canadian, the equivalent of about $48,000 U.S. today)—as well as her participation at Documenta 12 (a quinquennial exhibit of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany) and the Montreal Biennale in 2007, established her as the leading contemporary Inuit graphic artist of the period.  At Documenta, Annie exhibited not as a native artist as her predecessors from Kinngait had commonly been classified, but as a modern artist.

After the sudden acclaim, Annie moved from Kinngait to Ottawa in 2007, but the spotlight that had been turned on her wasn’t a positive development for her artistically or personally.  She created little new art in the years following the move (there are no pieces of Annie’s work after the early 2000s in Akunnittinni) and began living on the streets and along the banks of the city’s Rideau River, falling into drug abuse and addiction.  In 2010, she started a relationship with William Watt, who became her common-law husband; they had a daughter in 2012.  (Annie had two older sons, now adults, who were adopted by relatives.  Her daughter, named after her mother, Napachie, was eventually also adopted.)  Around that year, she began drawing again, making one sketch a day which she sold for cigarette money, about $25 or $30 each; her Kinngait works were selling for $1,600 to $2,600 a piece at her Toronto gallery. 

Four years later, on 19 September 2016, 47-year-old Annie Pootoogook’s body was found in the Rideau River in Ottawa.  While her death hasn’t been ruled a homicide—the cause of death was drowning, but the medical examiners couldn’t determine if the renowned artist drowned herself or if she was drowned by someone else—the Ottawa Police Service continues to investigate the death as suspicious.

Annie’s artwork, mostly drawings on paper with ink and colored pencil, broke with conventional traditions of Inuit art.  Her subjects were not arctic animals or serene scenes of nomadic existence from a time before settlement life; rather, her images reflected her experiences as a female artist growing up, living, and working in contemporary Canada.  Her art depicted a community experiencing transition and conflict as the old ways of her grandmother and mother clashed with modern Canada.  (In this aspect, Annie was following in a path blazed by one of Inuit art’s most illustrious old-timers, Pudlo, who made room in his  art for modern technology alongside the traditional Inuit and arctic images.  Pudlo, however, didn’t see 20th-century phenomena as clashing with Inuit life; they’d become part of it.)  Taking inspiration from her grandmother and mother, nonetheless, and following their lead in the sulijuk tradition, Annie depicted the life of her community in flux in bright, vivid colors in contrast to Pitseolak’s subdued palette.

Like her grandmother, Pitseolak, before her, however, Annie was an instinctive chronicler of her times.  She filled her domestic interiors with details such as clocks and calendars, graduation photos, and Inuktitut messages stuck to the fridge in modern Inuit kitchens.  Indeed, unlike much conventional Inuit art, in which figures are usually isolated in ambiguous, white backgrounds, Annie filled her pictures with fully-limned settings, usually interiors, like little stage sets.  Her graphics record the incursions of the mainstream culture into Inuit life, with images of technology like ATM machines, television, videogames, mobile phones, and snow mobiles.  The death of her mother, Napachie, in 2002 led Annie to explore themes of mortality and spirituality.

The theme of the inclusion of modern technology in everyday Inuit life appears with a touch of humor in Watching the Simpsons on TV (pencil, ink, and colored pencil on paper, 2003), a hyper-detailed scene of the interior of a contemporary Inuit home with the young mother and father either dressing to go out into the cold or doffing their outerwear after coming home, while their small child, bundled up in his or her parka, is standing facing away from us, staring at Marge and Homer Simpson on the television set right in front of his face.  In its simplicity and directness, Annie’s drawing could be a one-panel cartoon: it tells a whole story at a glance and makes a comment on a social phenomenon in a subtle and amusing way. 

2003–04’s Family Sleeping in a Tent (colored pencil and ink on paper) works the same way: we see two couples snuggled in sleeping bags on a pair of double mattresses in a huge tent.  Around them are all the conveniences of a modern campsite: camp stove, Coleman lantern, CB radio, a can of “camping fuel,” a radio, and a clock.  (With all that equipment, you know they got to the campsite in a truck or an SUV!)  As a bonus benefit, it’s interesting to contrast this drawing with Pitseolak’s Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Annie drew Family Sleeping as a deliberate homage to her grandmother’s Family Camping.  The younger artist clearly felt a special connection to Pitseolak since included in this exhibit are two prints which are direct and specific references to the older artist: 2006’s Pitseolak’s Glasses (collagraph on paper), which simply presents the late artist’s familiar black-framed glasses (Jason Farago described them as “Nana Mouskouri-style eyeglasses” in the New York Times—for anyone who knows who that is!), and Portrait of Pitseolak (collagraph and ink on paper, 2003-04), portraying Annie’s grandmother standing alone before a blank, white background—a reference, I suspect, to the convention of her grandmother’s and mother’s practice—wearing not a traditional Inuit parka, but a dark gray, modern jacket, buttoned all the way up, over a red skirt with green flowers, with a gray polka-dot head scarf tied under her chin, carrying a brown wooden cane in her right hand and a yellow, polka-dot bag in her  left.  Pitseolak’s wearing the signature glasses in the portrait.  (A collagraph is a form of monoprint created from a collage of textures that have been glued onto a rigid surface.)  Edward Guarino, the Inuit art collector, calling the poignant and touching Glasses “a masterpiece,” characterized the picture as “a contemporary still life that is also a moving symbolic portrait of a beloved family member who has died.”  Of the affectionate Portrait, Guarino wrote that it’s “at once a remembrance of a beloved family member as well as the likeness of a celebrated artist and a portrait of old age.” 

Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait is a very small show, displayed along one wall of the corridor outside the Heye’s permanent exhibit gallery.  There are only 18 prints and drawings, six from each of the artists.  Each one, however, is  exquisite, providing a glimpse of the later work of the three women that, at least according to the IAIA’s Hanley, exemplified each one’s style and main themes.  The works of Pitseolak Ashoona and Napachie and Annie Pootoogook are also remarkable because each  print or drawing tells a little tale; you can’t describe most of them, as I imagine you’ve noticed, without recounting the story behind the image. (Napachie, of course, actually inscribed her works with the story she’s illustrating.)  However small the selection of works, though, the “discourse and dialog” among the three artists, as Hanley terms it, is nonetheless powerful.  Furthermore, spanning nearly 40 years, the pieces on display at the Heye Center also chronicle how the family’s life and the world of Kinngait have changed over time.  (The three artists’ lives actually covered well over a century of Inuit history.)

On the website Hyperallergic, Christopher Green wrote that the exhibit “moves past the belabored topics of market making and the in/authentic modernity of Cape Dorset printmaking to pursue matrilineal discourses internal to the community.  The effect,” he continued, “is an inward-looking familial history, rather than one . . . that focuses on the needs and desires of southerners.”  Pitseolak’s works, asserted Green, demonstrated “the long line of generational knowledge that reaches back to precolonial life,” while Napachie’s pictures represent a “foray into particularly contemporary issues that were not necessarily present in Ashoona’s work.”  The art critic declared, “It is the work of Annie Pootoogook that most strikingly demonstrates the ways traditional Inuit family life has been integrated into the modern North,” and insisted, “Her drawings alone are reason enough to see the exhibition.” 

Jennifer Levin wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “The exhibition shows . . . a humorous eye for detail and an impulse to tell stories about family life.”  In Akunnittinni, which Levin covered at MoCNA, it’s Napachie’s work that “stands out as the most shocking in its reflection of Inuit life,” she observed, but Annie’s “vibrant work” displays her “edgy insistence on present-day life in the Canadian Arctic.”  The critic summed the show up by observing that it “shows that, like family and cultural traditions, some artistic concerns are passed down, mother to daughter to granddaughter, as each generation turns to drawing for its own reasons.”

In the Inuit Art Quarterly, Michelle McGeough (also writing about the Santa Fe exhibit) remarked:

The exhibition . . . gives each artist space in the intimate gallery to present their unique individual visual depiction of Inuit history, positioning a life lived on the land prior to settlement living alongside stories of the contemporary realities of Northern life.  This arrangement gives the viewer the opportunity to appreciate the individual artists’ articulation of northern life and oral traditions.

Of the works of Pitseolak on exhibit, McGeough noted that “the artist’s prints brilliantly demonstrate her mastery of line and composition and her ability to eloquently render the movement of a body through space.”  Her daughter, Napachie’s “narrative imagery depicts a much harsher reality for Inuit women.  She does not shy away from uncomfortable topics, and in doing so, challenges any idealized notions one might have of northern life.”  They are “dramatic depictions of oral traditions and a collective history marked by change.”  McGeough continued: “In contrast, Annie Pootoogook’s artistic sensibility is shaped by the sweeping thrust of modernity in Canada’s North.  Infused with popular culture references, her depictions of contemporary life focus on the personal and intimate.”  The IAQ critic added, “The viewer instinctively knows she shares a very personal relationship with the subjects whom she depicts.” 

In the New York Times, Jason Farago dubbed Akunnittinni “touching” and remarked that while the three artists “each established quite distinct artistic vocabularies,” nevertheless “beneath their divergent styles were common concerns about the wages of modernization, as well as the role of art among families and communities “  The Timesman observed that Pitseolak’s pictures “depict seals, dogs, ballplayers and a camping family as hard-edge figures afloat in fields of white,” while her daughter, Napachie’s, “engaged with social concerns in their community, including alcoholism and the abuse of women.”  Annie Pootoogook “took that present-tense orientation even further,” continued Farago, “completing raw but often humorous drawings of contemporary life in Cape Dorset.” 

[I recommend that anyone even remotely interested in the art and artifacts of the American Indian, much of which is breathtakingly beautiful and all of which is eye-opening, pay a visit to the Heye Center, a little-known  gem of New York City culture at the southern tip of ManhattanLike all Smithsonian facilities, it’s free and open every day (including Mondays, the traditional dark day for museums, and holidays except Christmas Day) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 8 p.m. on Thursdays).  The address of the Heye Center is 1 Bowling Green (on Whitehall Street, an extension of Broadway, at Stone Street) and its phone number is (212) 514-3700; the website is at http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/.]

No comments:

Post a Comment