Pretty in print

Inuit printmaker Pitaloosie Saila’s “A Personal Journey” showcased at the WAG

Pitaloosie Saila is a printmaker from Cape Dorset whose first public gallery, called “A Personal Journey,” opened on October 27 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Art from one of Cape Dorset’s oldest printmakers is currently being showcased in a public exhibition for the first time at the WAG. “A Personal Journey” is a collection of Pitaloosie Saila’s drawings and prints from throughout her career that deal with themes of family and history. Saila began drawing in 1958.

“Most of them have an important story,” Saila said.
“I have kids. Some way we have to have money to put food on the table,” Saila said. “So that’s how I started.”

Saila has created more than 1,450 drawings and 165 prints to date. The show includes 32 prints that show characters such as her grandmother and sister, people from her community practicing traditional dance, her Arctic Madonna, and herself. Saila said that representing these characters in her art is very important to her.

“Because we are from up north, a very isolated, cold place,” Saila said. “The Inuit, they have their own culture, it’s nice that we are different people from other peoples in the world.”

Guest curator Susan Gustavison said Saila is interested in history and tradition, unlike other contemporary Inuit artists.

“Something like The Whaler’s Reel is reaching back into history and stories her grandmother told her,” Gustavison said. “She’s interested in passing down what was important to her.”

Gustavison said Saila experienced a number of tragedies at a young age. She was hospitalized for eight years, starting at the age of seven, for a broken back. She stayed in hospitals in Halifax, Montreal, and Hamilton throughout those years.

In that time, her younger sister passed away, along with her two grandmothers, and two of her aunts from her home community. Her mother had passed away when she was two years old.

“And she was only 15. I just can’t imagine going through what she did,” Gustavison said.

When she returned  home from the hospitals, she had very little Inuktituk left, had grown accustomed to hospital food instead of food from the region, and was dressed in Western style clothing, according to Gustavison.

“Her father met her and she just vaguely remembered that must be someone familiar but she didn’t know who it was,” Gustavison said.
Some of Saila’s pieces, such as My Father’s Pipe, Eskimo Leader, and Strange Ladies deal with this journey. The last piece depicts three women from Saila’s time in hospitals, including a nurse and a nun.

“I’m so proud of her, to have her moment in the sun,” Gustavison said, nearly breaking into tears.

Gustavison said she applied for a research grant with the government of Nunavut to study Saila’s work, and to work with Saila in creating a catalogue. This grant also covered the cost of an exhibition, and Gustavison got in touch with Darlene Coward Wight, the curator for the Inuit Art Centre at the WAG.

“I’ve been involved in Inuit art study for 37 years and I’ve known her work all that time. So it’s been really nice,” Wight said of the gallery.

“I think she’s been one of the overlooked artists. This is her first retrospective show, so it’s long overdue.”

A Personal Journey will be showing at the WAG Oct. 28 – May 13.