In 1969 when Annie Pootoogook was born in the Nunavut art-making community of Cape Dorset, there were no igloos, so she didn’t draw igloos, the late Inuit artist once said. Instead, she drew what she knew: Visits to the supermarket, watching Jerry Springer on television and, sadly, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Indeed, the demons of alcohol and violence plagued the acclaimed artist for much of her troubled life and it was those demons that appear to have led her, at age 47, to a watery grave in the Rideau River, near an outdoor hangout for drug addicts mere blocks from Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Pootoogook’s body was found Sept. 19 but she was not identified by police until Sept. 23. Foul play was not immediately suspected.
Pootoogook came from a family of artists. Her grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona, and mother and father, Napachie and Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, were all artists. Annie started drawing in 1997 and shot to fame in 2006 when she won the $50,000 Sobey Art Award given to promising young artists.
Suddenly, Pootoogook was nicknamed “the rich girl” in Cape Dorset. She had solo exhibitions in Canada and abroad. There were books and documentary films about her. The National Gallery of Canada and other major art institutions acquired her child-like pencil and crayon drawings of contemporary Inuit life. Her pictures of supermarket visits were done in the same restrained matter-of-fact style as those of a husband beating his wife with a stick.
Pootoogook changed the trajectory of Inuit art. It was as if she gave other Inuit artists permission to create scenes beyond igloos and polar bears. She especially seemed to influence Shuvinai Ashoona, the Cape Dorset artist who replaced Pootoogook in recent years as the “it girl” of Inuit art, tackling such issues as suicide.
Fame was difficult for Pootoogook. She was very shy and spoke mainly Inuktituk. She moved to Ottawa in 2007, ran out of money and eventually became homeless, trading her drawings on downtown streets for $20 for booze. At Pat Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto, Pootoogook’s dealer, her drawings sold for $2,000 or more.
In 2012, Pootoogook gave birth to a daughter in the bathroom of an Ottawa homeless shelter. The child was immediately seized by the Children’s Aid Society. Earlier, she had had two sons, now adults, who were adopted by relatives in the North.
Pootoogook did not lack well-meaning friends. Among them, former governor general Michaelle Jean and two of Ottawa’s leading curators, twins Jason and Stefan St. Laurent, who offered her space to work at SAW Gallery and placed her drawings in exhibitions. In fact, some of her drawings were to be on exhibition at SAW until Sept. 30 in a group show called Neon NDN featuring edgy indigenous art.
Tributes flowed upon news of Pootoogook’s death. Marc Mayer, director of the National Gallery, tweeted: “Heartbreaking.” Norman Vorano, an Inuit art expert at Queen’s University in Kingston described Pootoogook as an “innovator” that resonated with contemporary artists and audiences. “Her career was brilliant but far, far too short.”