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Tim Pitsiulak Drew with a Hunter’s Knowledge

At the Art Gallery of Guelph, the late artist’s vibrant drawings depict interspecies relationships and the land that unites them

BY Georgia Phillips-Amos in Exhibition Reviews | 30 JAN 24

To see Tim Pitsiulak’s drawings in ‘ᑕᐅᑐᑉᐹ Tautuppaa’ or ‘Long Looking’ at the Art Gallery of Guelph, visitors must first traverse mirrored silhouettes of Kinngait (Inuktitut for ‘where the hills are’), the rolling landscape that gives its name to the town where the late artist lived and worked. The black-painted terrain stretches more than two metres up the gallery walls. Above the ridgelines, curator Taqralik Partridge has arranged, salon style, a selection of more than 60 works on paper by Inuit artists from the gallery’s collection, including drawings by Shuvinai Ashoona, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk and Irene Avaalaaqiaq Tiktaalaaq. At the opening, Partridge described how ‘convention is to value work by giving it space. This presentation – in an at-home, Inuit way, in relation – values the work differently.’ 

Tim Pitsiulak, Raw Hide, 2015, coloured pencil on paper, 66 × 102 cm. Courtesy: Art Gallery of Guelph; photograph: Martin Schwalbe

Pitsiulak’s drawings – luminous compositions of Kinngait landscapes, hunting scenes and beyond-human transformations – belong to a vibrant lineage. In the catalogue for a 2018 exhibition Pitsiulak shared with his aunt, printmaker Kenojuak Ashevak, he is quoted as citing her as his inspiration, stating: ‘She was the oldest and the best.’ Ashevak’s stonecuts redefined Canadian visual culture and, since 1970, have been featured on currency and postage stamps. Pitsiulak and his aunt were members of Kinngait Studios, the longest-running print studio in Canada, operating since 1959. In Kinngait, roughly 10 percent of the town’s population currently support themselves as artists.

Tim Pitsiulak, Unuakut Sanajuk, 2015, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 51 × 64 cm. Courtesy: Art Gallery of Guelph; photograph: Martin Schwalbe

There is an ode to printmaking in Pitsiulak’s coloured pencil drawings on paper. In printmaking, the subject is pressed and often hovers on the indeterminate background of the page. While he occasionally used white paper, Pitsiulak favoured black. Figures such as Shaman (2011) – part walrus, part man – float in a sea of black, the same one that also runs through the figure’s eyes and his sealskin parka. The idea of negative space falls short here: the untouched paper is still active and signals water, land, void and becoming. The drawings call to mind the ghostly crossover in David Hammons’s grease-on-black paper ‘Body Prints’ (1968–79), whose subjects appear to emerge from the background.

The attention to detail in Pitsiulak’s drawings reveals a hunter’s knowledge of the land, animals and machinery of the north. Movement is illustrated with the sparest of marks: a trail of white bubbles conveys the exhale of a whale (Sedna and the Whale, 2014) or a woman (Lumaajuuq, 2015); faint imprints in the snow are tracks (It Is Warmer, 2007); a blood-red bloom tells which way the current flows around a walrus whose tusks have sunk into the head of a killer whale (Fear No More, 2014). Each composition is a narrative in medias res.  

Tim Pitsiulak, Fear No More, 2014, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 76 × 112 cm. Courtesy: Art Gallery of Guelph; photograph: Martin Schwalbe

Pitsiulak’s figures are often drawn in strong relation to one another. Some companions are at ease – as in the embracing whales of Unity (2016) or the dog being pulled on a sled behind a souped-up snowmobile in Spoiled (2016). A signature relation for Pitsiulak, however, is the merging of hunter and prey. In Raw Hide (2015), for instance, a polar bear bites into a walrus. The wrinkles of the walrus’s skin sink down and blend with the lines of the ground beneath both animals, while a counter upward motion – in blood red, once again – seeps up the bear’s legs, arms and face. During a walkthrough of the exhibition, Partridge raised the possibility of an energy transference between the animals, beyond physical nourishment, and a transference with the land that holds them – the same land whose silhouette visitors encounter when entering the gallery.

Pitsiulak’s passing in 2016, at only 49 years of age, was a grave loss. His legacy continues in the drawings and prints that he left, whose detail, humour and light invite us to practice the art of ‘long looking’.

Main image: Tim Pitsiulak, Shaman, 2011, coloured pencil and graphite on paper, 51 × 66 cm. Courtesy: Art Gallery of Guelph; photograph: Martin Schwalbe

Georgia Phillips–Amos is a PhD candidate in Art History at Concordia University. Her art criticism has appeared in BOMB, the Brooklyn Rail and several other publications