It's Just Between Us

It's Just Between Us:

Courtesy Edward J. Guarino Collection

creative, positive light,” says Phillips. “Napachie’s is of the past, but concentrates on the darker side [of the culture], and Annie’s is more current to how life is today. That’s how I see the dialogue between the three, and also I think it’s generational. You know when [Pitseolak] was alive, it was at a time when you didn’t really speak about the bad side of your culture, and the next generation was able to [more freely].”

In Akunnittinni, the unbridled romanticism of Pitseolak Ashoona, who had 17 children, is illustrated primarily through images of family and motherhood in works such as Family Camping in Tuniq Ruins or whimsical remembrances such as Games of My Youth. The matriarch centered on optimism and positivity in her work, a practice which began mid-life for her in the 1960s, with the encouragement and support of the West Baffin Co-op. A prolific artist, her overall oeuvre includes some 9,000 works.

Napachie Pootoogook’s exploration of Inuit culture takes a very different turn and is markedly noticeable among the works in Akunnittinni. In particular, past subjugation of women is brought to the forefront in works such as Whaler’s Exchange, Trading Women for Supplies and Male Dominance. One work even examines the devastating effects of historical famine in Inuit communities. In Eating His Mother’s Remains, a man resorts to cannibalism in the throes of extreme hunger.

“What attracted me to [Napachie’s] works is that the artist was doing something that basically no other Inuit artist was doing and to a large extent many indigenous artists don’t do,” says Guarino. “She was presenting aspects of her culture that [many] would prefer not to be out there in the world, but she felt it was important. Napachie wanted to present the darker aspects and felt they needed to be recorded, such as the treatment of women, and her drawings portrayed these things graphically.” Huffman adds, “I think this is a cathartic way of dealing with some of the very dark moments that have been part of Inuit history. But also this really does speak to the idea of ‘what does that white, southern colonial intervention look like?’, and as far as I’m concerned, it plays itself out in Napachie’s work more than anybody’s.”

Annie Pootoogook’s work is often also known for not shying away from controversial topics. Though not showcased in this exhibition, her works have approached serious issues such as alcoholism and domestic violence. Her modern emphasis also marks a departure in much of the traditional Inuit body of work. In Akunnittinni, her works underscore day-to-day contemporary Inuit life. The heartfelt scenes of Couple Sleeping and Drinking Tea are powerful in their exquisite embrace of the ordinary, but perhaps most endearing of her works in the show are A Portrait of Pitseolak and Pitseolak’s Glasses.

“I’m so delighted these are being exhibited together,” says Guarino. “They’ve been exhibited separately, but not together. … Pitseolak was known for her iconic black-rimmed glasses. On the one hand, you have a figurative representation of her grandmother, but then there is a print of just the grandmother’s glasses on the other hand. It’s a still life, but also a symbolic portrait. Those are the things that fascinated me.”

According to Huffman, exhibitions such as Akunnittinni serve a much-needed function within the broader art discourse. “An important part of [Dorset Fine Art’s] mandate is to promote actively curatorial and scholarly investigation, so we are able to situate this work the same way the rest of art history functions,” he says. “You can read lots of books about lots and lots of movements and their context in the contemporary art world, but we need to do more of that in terms of the Inuit art perspective.”

Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait runs through Jan. 8, 2018, at the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York.

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