Post by Joyce MacPhee, Ottawa-based writer and editor
“There is no one quite like Alootook Ipellie,” according to Sandra Dyck, Heather Igloliorte and Christine Lalonde, the co-curators of a retrospective of the artist’s work on display at the Carleton University Art Gallery until December 9. Those who visit the exhibition, Alootook Ipellie: Walking Both Sides of an Invisible Border, can judge for themselves by viewing more than 100 exceptional pieces. This fully bilingual English/Inuktitut exhibition features finely detailed pen and ink drawings, plus articles, poetry, essays, fiction and cartoons created over more than 40 years.
The sum total of Ipellie’s work is his reflections on being Inuit and the conflicts between the Inuit and non-Inuit worlds. Born near Iqaluit, Nunavut in 1951 and raised in Iqaluit (then Frobisher Bay), Ipellie came to Ottawa for high school in the late 1960s. After that he spent most of his time in Ottawa until his death in 2007.
Although an exceptionally quiet man, Ipellie’s voice rings true and clear throughout this exhibition of mostly black and white, beautifully rendered images. He expresses strong opinions on Inuit social and political concerns, yet remains upbeat, often using humour to great effect. His striking images are thought-provoking, funny, heartwarming and terrifying in turns and can remain seared in your consciousness long after viewing them.
During the exhibition launch on September 17, Natan Obed, President of the national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), spoke movingly of how Ipellie has been an inspiration to him and marvelled at how relevant his work is.
Ipellie’s artwork is placed in roughly chronological order (from the mid-seventies to 2007). Most of the six rooms in the exhibition contains display cases with myriad Inuit and Indigenous publications he contributed images and text for, including the ITK magazine Inuit Today, and Nunatsiaq News, the weekly newspaper of the eastern Arctic.
His importance as a writer is not to be overlooked and Ipellie’s work has been examined by scholars in North America and Europe. Five of his poems are displayed throughout the exhibition, with copies people may take home.
The first room sets the tone and includes a promotional poster designed by Ipellie, encouraging Inuit to vote for the creation of Nunavut in 1982. A photo, illustration and poem about his beloved grandfather Inutsiaq, who was a famous carver, are displayed above a glass case containing a children’s book Ipellie co-authored, and copies of other books to which he contributed text or drawings.
Some of the drawings displayed throughout the exhibition were used in promotional material, publications or books while others were created as independent works of art.
The 40-plus editorial cartoons leaven serious topics with humour, an essential element of Inuit culture. “The idiot box is here!” proclaims one early 70s cartoon showing an Inuit man in front of a television with numerous igloos behind him, each with antennas protruding from them. Other cartoons depict talking polar bears, and a northern pipeline that gushes into a greedy mouth.
The final room features drawings from Ipellie’s last exhibit in Ottawa, a short while before his death in September 2007. Appropriately, the last drawing is titled Ascension of My Soul in Death (1993), from his short story collection Arctic Dreams and Nightmares. This exhibition will also travel to galleries in New York State, Iqaluit, Hamilton and Winnipeg until spring 2020.
Alootook Ipellie: Walking Both Sides of an Invisible Border is at the Carleton University Art Gallery until December 9, 2018.