Multidisciplinary artist Hannah Tooktoo is, in many ways, already a household name in Canada. Originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, QC, and now working from her home in Montreal, QC, Tooktoo is known for her advocacy work, which includes her famous bike ride across Canada in 2019 to raise awareness for the suicide rate in Inuit Nunangat. Now studying Fine Arts at Dawson College, Tooktoo has begun exploring a range of media, from painting and beading to carving and amauti-making, while raising her two young children. While her art and advocacy may appear to exist in separate arenas on the surface, Tooktoo leads with the same intention in her artistic production as she does in her activism.
“The energy you put into anything will come out in the final product,” she explains. “Like my grandmother taught me, you need to think good thoughts whenever you’re creating anything, like a pair of boots. If you’re frustrated and you’re having a hard time, you have to put that work down and come back to it later. The person that will wear them will carry the energy you have put into them, so they may have anger or difficulty in life if that is what you put into the boots.”
Tooktoo tends to favour figurative painted work depicting everything from legends passed down through generations to depictions of women. Women are key in her work, as many of her earliest artistic influences growing up in Kuujjuaq were the women in her life, including her mother, aunts and grandmothers. These women taught her skills such as beading and sewing, which she still employs to this day.
Hannah Tooktoo Fireweed (2020) Acrylic and gouache 25.4 x 20.3 cm
The women in Tooktoo’s paintings radiate a sense of calm or wisdom and are frequently adorned in traditional clothing and tattoos against vivid or patterned backgrounds. In one, a baby nestles into the hood of an amauti wrapped with a tartan shawl. In another, Sedna dances against a hypnotic background of blue whirlpools. In yet another portrait, a woman with braided hair and closed eyes is shown with a bright red handprint splashed across her mouth—an increasingly recognizable symbol for awareness of the gendered violence faced by Indigenous women across North America.
“My work is about showing pride,” she says. “When I enter my workspace, I carry in my pride in my culture, but I also bring in issues that Inuit, especially Inuit women, face. I want to find ways where I can work through them and make them make sense, or better understand them.” For Tooktoo, artmaking provides the dedicated space needed, “to really dig deep and look at abstract issues from different angles.”
The safety of Inuit women is among the many causes that Tooktoo explores through her art, as well as through her advocacy. For Tooktoo, art, culture, trauma and resiliency continually overlap and converge, becoming paintings, multimedia works and campaigns. They also demonstrate her intention to continually create positive change and healthy futures for Inuit. While women are her favoured subject matter, Tooktoo also creates images reflective of the flora and colour of Kuujjuaq that remind her of, and connect her to, home. Her paintings Cloudberry Dreams (2020) and Fireweed (2020) are such examples of her highly pigmented style, depicting berries that look juicy enough to eat and the brilliant hues of arctic flowers.
For Tooktoo, there is always a message in her medium. “Whether through creating art or storytelling, I am here to talk about issues that we face,” she says. “I’m just trying to shine a light and improve things for [those who] come after me.”
This Profile was made possible through support from the RBC Foundation’s Emerging Artists Project.
This Profile originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly
This piece was made possible with the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council.