It's Just Between Us

It's Just Between Us:

Courtesy Edward J. Guarino Collection

Three female artists representing three generations of one Inuit family present an unforgettable counterpoint on the development and current life of contemporary indigenous women.

These women are a grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona (1904–83), her daughter Napachie Pootoogook (1938–2002) and her granddaughter Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), of Cape Dorset, Nunavut, Canada. The three artists are the subject of Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait, an exhibition of their prints and drawings, originally organized by the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, N.M., and currently on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York. This collection of 18 works strikes what curator Andrea Hanley (Navajo), MoCNA membership and program manager, calls a “visual conversation” between the family members.

“We really wanted to get a broad range of what it is to be a contemporary indigenous woman, and for me, I really feel this exhibition is contemporary indigenous feminist discourse at its truest and finest,” says Hanley. “You get a sense of what it is – the struggle, the resilience and the strength of these women. Most importantly, you can see the family and the connections between these people and this family voice coming through this tribal context.” The idea for the exhibition formed when Hanley took a business trip to New York City with Patsy Phillips (Cherokee), MoCNA director. There they met with Hanley’s longtime friend, retired teacher and Native art collector Edward Guarino, to look at his vast collection of works by Inuit artists. Guarino has collected Native art for nearly 40 years and began to focus specifically on Inuit art around 20 years ago when he first chanced on the art of Janet Kigusiuq, an artist from the area of Baker Lake, Canada. She amazed him, he says, with her use of the Inuktitat language, multiple perspectives and the sense of life and movement she created.

“I have more works by Janet Kigusiuq than any other [Inuit] artist, but over the years I sort of flipped and am more interested in works from Cape Dorset nowadays,” says Guarino.

As Hanley and Phillips continued to look through Guarino’s collection (much of which was stored in archival boxes under his bed, in true New York apartment fashion), it became clear they wanted to do a show that concentrated on Pitseolak Ashoona, Napachie Pootoogook and Annie Pootoogook. Even before seeing Guarino’s collection, Hanley had particularly admired Annie’s work. Eventually they chose six works each for Napachie and Annie. But for Pitseolak Ashoona, they reached out to Will Huffman, marketing manager at Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto, Canada, the marketing division of West Baffin Eskimo 

Co-operative. Located in Cape Dorset, the co-operative is unique among the Arctic cooperatives for its focus on the arts and artists of its community.

“The bulk of what we do is promotion, distribution and advocacy around this work, but behind the scenes we have works-on-paper specialists and access to historians who deal with [Inuit content] in a scholarly way, in a curatorial way,” says Huffman. “So when Andrea called us to talk about what she was interested in doing, basically we had the ability to take that curatorial premise and work with our professionals to see how we could best complement and bookend the Annie and Napachie works.”

Guarino is quick to credit Dorset Fine Arts and the West Baffin Co-operative for keeping the practice of Inuit art strong. “There is no art scene in Cape Dorset as we would know it, let’s say like the Chelsea [New York City] art scene – it doesn’t exist,” he says. “But artists have Dorset Fine Arts supporting them, promoting them, and that doesn’t exist in other arctic communities, and in those communities, art has almost shriveled to a trickle.”

Once the 18 works in total were chosen, Hanley searched for an Inuktitut word that connected them together. Akunnittinni, which translates in English loosely to “between us,” was the most accurate representation of how she felt the works communicated with each other. Each artist’s set offers very different messages about Inuk life and culture. “Pitseolak’s work is more romanticized; it tells the story of how life used to be in a 

Joshua Voda is the public affairs specialist for the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.