Alex Jacobs
A photograph of a larger still image by William Ritchie at the IAIA Museum of Artist Annie Pootoogook.

Annie Pootoogook, Tragic But Talented Inuk Artist, Walks On at 47

Alex Jacobs

Annie Pootoogook – an artist well-known for her lively, in-the-moment, brave, often disturbing and ground-breaking artwork – was a major star in Canada and appreciated by the Inuit, First Nations and art communities, Canadian citizens and contemporary art lovers around the world.

On September 19, Pootoogook’s body was found in the Rideau River in Ottawa, off a park 2 kilometers from Parliament Hill. She was 47 years old. Although the police did not suspect foul play, the major crimes unit is currently investigating.

Though she was not as well-known in the United States including the mainstream American press and most art magazines or critical forums, Ms. Pootoogook won a major Canadian artist prize, was acclaimed by the post-modern art critics at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, and had a show at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

Within 10 years she was living on the streets in Ottawa and selling her drawings for survival. She had made several criticized choices regarding her male partners, the latest and last was William (Bill) Watt, who since 2010 tried to manage her, her celebrity and money-making capabilities.

Pootoogook told friends she feared for her safety and attempted to leave her situation. When she had left Watt and was going to a Shepherds of Good Hope shelter for assistance, she was later found in the Rideau River. Police have questioned Watt several times and continue with what has now become a high-profile case.

When she made art or engaged people over her art, she was very good and could light up a room. Although deeply shy, if given the occasion she could talk about her art to a room full of people for hours.

As it sometimes happens, she had removed herself from her support networks and ending up in Ottawa’s Inuit homeless community. Art, community and family situations were replaced with drinking, life on the streets and a series of abusive relationships..

To the media she was a celebrity and a story was expected. To the art community, there were many questions, few answers and a lot of speculation. The Native community added Annie to the missing and murdered indigenous women – #MMIW – and wanted answers, she was remembered at a MMIW rally where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke.

An Ottawa police sergeant, Chris Hrnchair, had made comments online that were criticized as racist spurning interest in the investigation. The man who reported these insensitive comments was the same man who adopted Annie’s now 4 year old girl, Napachie, since Annie could not care for the infant.

People in her support network would try to help her but she also had media seeking her out writing sensational stories or looking to make more film documentaries on her situation. Such notoriety would embarrass her and perhaps help drive her back to the streets.

After winning a $50,000 Sobey Award, she felt compelled to share her good fortune with family and friends and spent it all. Pootoogook, as with many Native people, have another sense of what is important and valuable, and it is family, clan and culture and not media obsessions, resume building, or marketing.

Annie’s body was returned to Cape Dorset in Nunavut after an autopsy and a ceremony will be held there and in Ottawa around the same time. There is a lot of material on the internet about Annie, including the 2005 documentary and a very good story with artwork at the Toronto Globe and Mail.

In a life fraught with difficulty, it is probably best to remember Annie Pootoogook for the stunning, vital and important art she did and how it broke open the contemporary scene for other Inuk and First Nations artists. We need to remember and celebrate the artist and visionary and forgive the wounded soul who only did what many of us also do on a daily basis, but we can all go home.

Travel well sister and find peace.


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