• Feature

The Spirited Storytelling of Ningiukulu Teevee

Feb 27, 2023
by IAQ

Based in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, self-taught artist Ningiukulu Teevee is celebrated for her prints and drawings, which have regularly appeared in Cape Dorset Annual Print Collections for the past 20 years, and been collected and exhibited by major institutions across Canada. Known for her playful depictions of figures from traditional stories and her everyday life, Teevee’s work showcases her keen attention to eclectic subject matter, appreciation for humorous experiences of life in the North and careful reflection on contemporary Inuit culture. In this interview, on the occasion of being longlisted for the 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, she describes her sources of inspiration: from tales passed on from Elders, to stories she hears on the radio, to experiences with her grandkids.

Ningiukulu Teevee Uunnijut (Relaxing After a Meal) (2017) Coloured pencil on paper REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION DORSET FINE ARTS © THE ARTIST
Can you tell me about how you got started as an artist? 

Ningiukulu Teevee: In the early 90’s, I heard Jimmy Manning talk on the local radio saying there was a chance to try printmaking for anyone who wanted to give it a try. So I gave it a try. 

IAQ: The first time your work was featured in the Annual Print Collection was in 2004. Did you make art before that?

NT: Yeah, they liked some of my work, and they believed in me! I kept at it for a few years and kept drawing and finally they made a lithograph edition of two of my drawings.

As a kid, I was interested in art. I watched my dad draw and do a little bit of watercolour, and I used up all his paper. He wasn’t happy about that.

IAQ: How or when did you decide to become a full-time professional artist?

NT: I always had jobs here and there, but I kept drawing to supplement my income. It’s only been a couple years doing nothing but art. I keep trying to put out drawings and trying to do different things, like acrylic or watercolour, which I am still getting the hang of. Working with different mediums is new to me, I’m still practicing! 

IAQ: Were there any moments in your career that changed how you thought of yourself as a professional artist?

I’ve never thought about being a real professional. I’m just being me! I don’t know if that definition really suits me.

There was one piece I remember, which was the first stonecut Kinngait Studio did of one of my drawings, by master stonecutter Qiatsuq Niviaqsi, here in Cape Dorset—Rainbow Reflection (2006). It was a fish with rainbow colours, but a loon inside of him. That’s the one that really comes to mind as an important moment—I was in awe. It was a big surprise to see it like that.

Rainbow Reflection
Ningiukulu Teevee Rainbow Reflection (2006) Coloured pencil on paper REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION DORSET FINE ARTS © THE ARTIST
IAQ: What keeps you interested in making art?

NT: At first, I made art because we needed money. But then I felt that I needed to keep our stories alive—our Inuit myths and legends that were told by our Elders, like Mialia Jaw. Those became the main source of my inspiration for the subjects of my art. But some of my drawings are also about everyday life up here in the North.

I think storytelling—and performing the songs that go with it—is like a superpower. I wish I had the ability to remember the stories and songs, word for word. I can depict stories in my artwork but please don’t ask me to tell a story. It would be very short!

Of course, I'm inspired by other artists. Maybe some of my works are like spin-offs, or my own variations on ideas inspired by other artists. I really admire Napachie Pootoogook. I thought she was really brave to tell her stories, all about life. She drew life. Stories about people and about women, real ones. 

IAQ: What do you listen to when you're creating artwork?

NT: Usually CBC Radio and Inuit shows. There are some funny shows, really wonderful stories, news from other communities. Some of the stories are really inspiring—sometimes someone will be telling a story and I realize it would be a good idea for a piece. 

IAQ:  When you have those ideas, or if you hear something inspiring, how do you keep track of it? 

NT: The ones that really touch my heart, I can remember. But I really should have a sketchbook in my hand all the time. Sometimes I have an idea and I can’t remember it and it’s gone forever.

IAQ: Were there things in your life that made it hard to be an artist?

NT: There were times I felt like giving up. But I always wondered what I would do next if I gave it up. When I have been through personal loss, there would be periods where I didn’t draw. But I would have to get back into it because there’s no other way to keep on, and I need to lay out those feelings on paper. 

IAQ: How do you feel about where you are in your career now?

NT: I'm happy. I need to make it to the studio a bit more often than I am, and spend more time there. Right now I am mostly working from home.

I am pretty private in how I work. There’s not much space at the studio and there are other artists there, coming and going. It’s kind of awkward for me, having people looking over my shoulder. It's more quiet around here. I know if I really want to work on something—if I have a very good idea for something big—that’s when I will go into the studio.

At home, I can be with my work and my family. When the grandkids go out—usually to see their other grandmother—then I have my quiet time where I can work on art. 

IAQ: Do you ever draw your grandkids?

NT: I did one of our grandson, who was really into superheroes, especially Superman. It was kind of embarrassing when we had to go out, because he always had a tea towel for a cape! So we got him a Superman cape. He was so happy. I drew one of him, and the title was Marvelous Fan

Ningiukulu Teevee-Marvelous Fan
Ningiukulu Teevee Marvelous Fan (2017) Coloured pencil on paper REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION DORSET FINE ARTS © THE ARTIST

Outside of making art, how do you like to spend your time?

I love fishing or boating. I’m afraid to camp out because of all the polar bears. I shouldn’t laugh about the polar bears—that should be a rule we all know about. Don’t laugh about them, because they hear! 

IAQ: How would winning the 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award help you continue making art? 

NT: It definitely would ease off the pressure and make it easy for me to just create. It would give me a chance to take my time and give it my all.

I’ve always had time pressure in making art. I'm not complaining. But early in the game, the co-op was buying like, three times a week. In some ways, the pressure is still there, but I have gotten used to it. In a month, I usually make eight pieces, maybe nine. I try to make one for every Tuesday and every Thursday—each week’s buying day. 

IAQ: If you could work with any other artist, who would it be?

NT: Saimaiyu Akesuk, if she has the time! Or my son, Ekidlua Teevee. Someday I’d like to work on something with him, in different materials that I don’t know how to use yet. He’s a good carver.

IAQ: Why are awards like the Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award important to you as an artist?

NT: I think it’s important for people to receive and to be honoured by it. It helps artists out financially, but also it recognizes people for their art.

This award is keeping Kenojuak’s memory alive, and shows that she is not forgotten—in our community and the world. Whenever I would see Kenojuak, I would call her “Anitsauluk” and she would call me “Najatsakuluk,” because our namesakes were cousins. We weren’t close, but she impacted me.

Read interviews with the other longlisted artists.

This interview was conducted by phone in January 2023. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.

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