Inuit Art as a Negotiation of Identity
The excitement and activity in the Inuit Art world discussed above launched the careers of two generations of artists, showing contrast in subject matter and both continuity and differences between new and old experiences. This social upheaval displayed by the Inuit helped lay the groundwork for another shift in perspective. A growing realisation by younger artists that their life includes significant Southern influences and that their art should reflect this hybrid identity. Peter Millard approaches this concept with a fitting statement, “the works of earlier Inuit Artists was acculturated, whereas the works of succeeding artists will be about acculturation.”
The establishment of Nunavut in 1999 has radically changed the relationship between Inuit and the rest of Canada and is still evolving for that matter. In the following year, Marie Bouchard, Curator of the Sarick Collection asserts that, “Inuit are no longer subject to the neo colonial status of the exotic other.” She additionally suggests that in a post-colonial Nunavut Inuit Art and culture are “openly acknowledged to have equal value” to that of Western dominant culture which has assimilated itself into Inuit culture. In 2020, we have only just witnessed the effects of Nunavut and based on that I disagree with what she had to say. A post-colonial Nunavut, by definition implies a time beyond colonialism, and I would argue that technically and legally this may be true. However, in reality Inuit Art continues to respond to the colonial condition. I have explored this by reference to major developments of Inuit Art in the 21st century context, by splitting the first two decades into; (i) Post Nunavut (1999), and (ii) Post Vancouver Olympics (2010).
Entering a globalised age in the 21st century, Inuit Artists began to fit into one of two profiles: Artists who continue to live in major artmaking communities, most prominent of which is the Cape Dorset art colony now known as Kinngait. This group of artists have built on established foundations, taking stylistic, thematic and personal growth to new uncharted heights. The second group comprises of artists who have moved south to expand artistic opportunities and who have experienced living in an urban setting.
On paper, Inuit who have left to pursue artistic opportunities have greater freedom to make art of their own choosing and market it how they see fit. However, this group of artists far removed from the safety and certainty of Cape Dorset, have to face conflicting decisions concerning artistic portrayals and saleability. They could focus on portraying ‘Inuitness’ which would sell but would not be taken seriously in the broader art world. However, if their work was too much like Southern art, it might not sell in the Inuit Art market. Most artists who travel south chose to prioritise saleability over their individualist ideals which is one of the reasons why primitivism is still so relevant to the success of Inuit Art and why only a handful of Inuit Artists have been embraced for their personal styles. Inuit Art Curator Heather Campbell suggests a new divide within Inuit Art stating there is a distinction between an “Inuit Artist” and an “artist who happens to be Inuk”. This division is not exclusive to the context of art but makes a broader statement on the direction of Inuit culture as a result of coming to terms with modernity alongside adapting to living in a self-determined territory.
Since 2002 the documentarian approach conceived by Kanaginak Pootoogook and the emphasis on personality by Kenojuak Ashevak has been dramatically embraced by contemporary artists such as the late Annie Pootoogook (1969-2016) and Shuvinai Ashoona (b.1961). It should be noted that though the new wave of art production was being seen as embracing modernity, the personalisation of works did not completely abandon traditional themes as will be seen with Shuvinai Ashoona. Moreover, traditional themes are re-conceptualised as metaphorical, rather than a return to tradition.
Annie Pootoogook: Breaking Aesthetic Traditions and Embracing Modern Realities
Annie Pootoogook’s drawings are appreciated for the depiction of modern realities of the Arctic. Her work mostly focused on the social realities of family violence, day to day life and the environment of the modern house. Her ideas are not new to the medium of Inuit Art; however, she is the first to succeed as an individual artist showing an utterly de-romanticised reality. Her work challenged both the Southern and Inuit expectations of how the Arctic reality should be depicted. She intertwined the local and global in her lived experiences, for instance portraying alcoholism as a growing problem in the North in Breaking Bottles. (FIG 12)
Her drawings recollect the autobiographical nature of her mother Napachie Pootoogook and closely resemble the documentarian style of her uncle Kanaginak Pootoogook. The difference between her work and those of her relatives was representative of the individualism entering the world of Inuit Art. Her drawings present a period of transition, not of the recent past but her contemporary moment. Celebrated beyond the Inuit Art network, Annie is celebrated for the exhibitionist and reality tv approach she takes to depict the dynamic nature of contemporary life in the Arctic such as subjects watching tv and listening to the radio (FIG 13). To the Western aesthetic eye, it is easy to treat her work as banal. However, her deliberate imagery provided Southern viewers to experience something familiar, not foreign, a hybrid reality filtered through the emotional lens of the artist.
I believe her spirit and the directness of her ideas and drawings served as a significant influence for what Inuit Art has become today and what it represents. In 2006 her drawings were displayed at Power Plant, a renowned Canadian Contemporary Art gallery, a first for an Inuit Artist. In the same year, she won the prestigious Sobey award (the equivalent of the Turner Prize in the UK). For an Inuit Artist to have been nominated and to have won the award broke the barriers entrenched within Canadian art proving Inuit Art can be part of the contemporary mainstream. Her practised and celebrated individualism paved the way for the increase of interest and investment in contemporary Inuit Art seen since her passing in 2016. In interviews with a member of the Judging team; former director and curator of Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Wayne Baerwaldr quoted, “many were resistant to her work and that she was not informed enough, not been exposed to modernism, and had no formal training.” The irony of the comments is suggestive of a Southern ignorance towards the heavily imposed modernity Inuit had been subjected to. These perceptions of Inuit Art come from the long-standing misunderstanding of Inuit Art’s oppressive commercial past that classified the art form as artificial. This was unlike other contemporary art that was considered pure as it originated from the spirit of the artist and therefore considered authentic.
Pootoogook reminds us that many people create art to articulate the world around them and portray it in a new and interesting manner. Her images of video games, television, the daily struggles in an Inuit context are often understood as a clash of culture between material culture of the South and attitudes of the North. However, I believe there is something more to her works. As Deborah Root suggests, “she contradicts the idea of cross culture as the point where two separate entities meet as victims of colonialism” but rather presents cross culture as a ‘fluid entity’. Pootoogook invites the audience to contemplate their preconceptions of the Inuit North and makes a significant statement of what an authentic depiction of the Arctic actually is.
Shuvinai Ashoona: Inuit Presence in the “Fine Art” Paradigm
While the uniquely Inuit social realism was gaining popularity since the late 90’s, other artists used Shamanistic themes in their contemporary works. Shuvinai Ashoona, like Annie Pootoogook draws from the lived experiences of the drastically changing North but what stands out in her work is the access to Popular culture. Ashoona is a good example of how the Co-op Kinngait Studios was a place of learning, not just a place of trade. Through observing other graphic artists, Ashoona honed her skills and developed an intricate and highly personal style that resonates today. During the late 90’s her subject matter was influenced by her love and knowledge of the land (FIG 14), However, from 2000 onwards, her work began to show a new dynamism exploring her imagination and perplexing iconography. She often draws on stories she was told as a child, translated into her art depicting strange hybrid creatures and evocative human figures against the landscape of the Arctic. Her 2015-piece Hunting Monsters (FIG 15) demonstrates this realisation well and is evidence of her established aesthetic style.
Her work on the international stage is significant in the discussion of authenticity and Inuit Art’s presence in the contemporary “fine art” paradigm. In 2009 she was the protagonist at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto entitled Noise Ghost which was followed by a documentary called ‘Ghost Noise’. The exhibition juxtaposed her work with that of a non-Inuit Artist Shary Boyle but also presented combined works to emphasise the parallels between Inuit and non-Inuit sensibility. This exhibition brought Ashoona’s work to new audiences and was seen as progress for Inuit Art on the world stage. Since then Ashoona has participated in ongoing collaborative exhibitions with Boyle, most notably, Universal Cobra 2015, an exhibition that explored chimeras of imagination and otherness. Self Portrait (FIG 16) is a collaborative piece where the two artists represent themselves in a northern landscape with objects and motifs from their imaginations. They blur the notions of authorship breaking the ‘self-portrait tradition’. This aspect of duality and the emphasis on cross cultural values is further discussed in Black Marble (FIG 17) that combines the Shamanism on Inuit culture with classicism of Western aesthetics with angelic motifs. Ashoona’s work consisting of monsters and hybrid wildlife, women giving birth to planets, hunters, and massive icebergs in a playful manner is a fresh perspective to these new audiences of what Inuit Art should resemble and it is this sort of drawing practice that is currently taking over Kinngait studios.
The building of a fantastical world in a collaborative effort shows the potential for Inuit Artists to have a role in fine art. Together in one exhibition resulted in an active dialogue between each artwork. Ashoona composed referential elements within an imagined world while, Boyle, similarly used fantastical imagery giving them contemporary relevance. In the documentary, Ashoona discusses how the perplexing and imaginative subject matter of her works explore a multiplicity of themes from politics of the contemporary North, of being a woman, and as an artist. The result is an exhibition that showcases individualism and displays Inuit Art within a Western context.
The paradox of Authenticity: Two Streams of Art Production
Both Ashoona and Pootoogook are examples of artists making socially conscious messages not just about Inuit in the global context of contemporary art but also about the role of the artist towards the Inuit Community. Despite the financial success they showed can be attained from art production, fewer Inuit were showing an interest in art production. This is partially due to the competitive Contemporary Fine Art market, but I believe it can also be attributed to the effects of modernity and the ongoing division between the mass-produced tourist art and fine art. When Houston established the cooperative system, it provided Inuit with a source of income when only limited jobs were available. As a result, in comparison to nowadays, there was a plethora of artists, well known and relatively unknown making a living through art production. The development of Inuit Art shows the transition from art production as a necessity to art production as a chosen vocation, as now more young people are educated, and presented with other opportunities.
As described in the earlier chapter, the cooperative system has played a pivotal role in the development of Kinngait and in the world of Inuit Art. At its core, from whichever way it is perceived, Inuit Art was initially economically driven and therefore, art production was tailored to what the market desired. Although this has had a lasting negative impact on the Image of the Inuit North, it should be noted that without the Co-operative system, the North would not have developed into what it is today.
Inuit Art continues to be made and will do so as long as there is a market. What has become evident in the 21st century is that there are effectively two streams of Inuit Art production. There still remains a large market for small handicrafts and tourist items sold under the Igloo Tag label, as part of the Northern economy. However, there is also now a small, and separate market for contemporary “fine art” where artists such as Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona have reigned. This re-invigorates the issues of authenticity in a new way, as this two-stream shift highlights the colonial condition of the collective vs the individual nature of Inuit Art and essentially begins to perceive Inuitness as part of the global contemporary art appetite for diversity. As Dr Norman Vorano states:
“looking through a colonial lens only allows one to see an art form that belongs to a distant past, not living amongst the rest of the world but alongside it. An acknowledgement of its vitality and relevance is also an acknowledgement of the shared world in which it resides which allows us in the present day to appreciate the complexity and beauty of Inuit Art experiencing a shared presence in the world.”
With this statement, Vorano is trying to make a post-colonial point on how global perceptions of Inuit Art need to be corrected for it to be understood. This is why exhibitions like Noise Ghost are so significant. They show the parallels of Inuit creativity alongside Non-Inuit creativity in an attempt to rectify the deeply rooted colonial condition. Supported by Deborah Root, she says, “the south must be willing to abandon the pre-determined cultural authenticity and start to see Inuit Artists as artists”
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 Root, Deborah., “Inuit Art and the Limits of Authenticity” in N Campbell, Annie Pootoogook, (Calgary, Illington Kerr Gallery, 2007)
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 Falvey, E. When Imagination and Politics Mix. (2015) [online] Available from: https://canadianart.ca/reviews/shuvinai-ashoona-and-shary-boyle-mix-imagination-and-politics/ (Accessed 03 April 2020).
 Campbell, Noise Ghost, (2009)
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 Norman Vorano quoted in Eilís Quinn, “THE NEW RAW – Contemporary Inuit Art,” Eye on the Arctic, September 30, 2010, http://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2010/09/30/the-new-raw/.
 Hessel, (2011) pp.189Recommended1 recommendationPublished in