The rate of suicide among Inuit is 11 times the Canadian average—a national tragedy. Inuit youth, in particular, are at high risk.
Now, a 91-year-old Inuit artist is trying to call attention to this problem with a 9-metre-long drawing.
Elisapee Ishulutaq’s artwork In His Memory, on display at Marion Scott Gallery | Kardosh Projects in Vancouver until November 26, is a four-panel drawing created earlier this year in her home community of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island.
“I drew it so that young people would not choose suicide as a solution to their problems,” Ishulutaq states in a text posted alongside the drawings.
In the statement, Ishulutaq also links mood disorders to national policies that compelled Canada’s Inuit population to give up their traditional life on the land, stating “We were happier back then.”
A view of Elisapee Ishulutaq’s four-panel drawing In His Memory at Marion Scott Gallery | Kardosh Projects in Vancouver. The art was inspired by memories of a youth suicide in Ishulutaq’s community in the 1990s. Image courtesy the artist and Marion Scott Gallery | Kardosh Projects.
In His Memory is based on Ishulutaq’s memories of a specific young boy’s suicide in the late 1990s. One of the four panels shows people leaving a grave; another shows mourners walking towards the local church for a memorial service; another shows a figure standing on the shore in front of a boat; and another, subtitled vigil with bird, shows a figure lying on the ground alongside a seated woman.
Asked about public reaction to the work so far, gallery director Robert Kardosh says the impact is noticeable.
“There is no question that viewers find it very moving once they learn about the origin of the images,” Kardosh says in an email. “It reaches people in a very direct way, compelling them to stop and reflect. I’ve had people tell me that it belongs in a church. That’s the effect of it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work of art move people quite as powerfully and profoundly as this. It’s good to know that the artist’s message is registering with the public in this way.”
As part of the process of making the drawing In His Memory, Ishulutaq welcomed Inuit children into the room where she was working. A group of them, inspired by Ishulutaq, also made their own drawing.
Other works in Ishulutaq’s current show in Vancouver include engravings of Inuit cultural traditions onto sealskin supports.
Elisapee Ishulutaq was born in a small seasonal camp on Baffin Island in 1925. She was raised in a largely traditional fashion before settling in Pangnirtung in the 1960s. She has been making art for four decades, and received the Order of Canada in 2014. Her 9.5-metre-long drawing Nunagah (My Home Place) (2009) was part of the 2012 Canadian Biennial at the National Gallery of Canada.