Tragic Death of Documenta Artist Investigated by Ottawa Police

Annie Pootoogook had shown work in the 2007 edition of Documenta.

Annie Pootoogook (1969-2016), was the first woman and first Indigenous artist to win the Sobey Art Award in 2006. Courtesy Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

The lifeless body of Annie Pootoogook, a 47-year-old Inuk artist, was found in the morning of September 19 in the Rideau River near Bordeleau Park, Ottawa. Although her death was not initially suspected of involving foul play, the homicide unit of the Ottawa police is now looking into “suspicious elements” related to the case, CBC News reports.

“[… ] the general assignment detectives came to us […] and we decided to take a closer look at it, as there were elements of it that needed further exploration that were somewhat suspicious,” Staff Sgt. Bruce Pirt told CBC. “It doesn’t mean there’s foul play right now. It doesn’t mean the whole thing is suspicious. There is just something about it that’s just not sitting right, so we’re going to take a closer look,” he added.

Pootoogook, who was one of few indigenous artists to achieve international recognition and whose work was often part of discussions around post-colonialism in the art world, had been living on the streets of Ottawa as a homeless person for several years.

She first rose to fame in 2006 with an exhibition at Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. That same year, Pootoogook won the prestigious $50,000 Sobey Art Award and participated in the 2007 edition of Documenta in Kassel, under the artistic direction of Roger M. Buergel.

Her work is part of the collections at the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

While autopsy results are already in, the crime unit is still waiting for other test results.

“[There’s been] a good, overwhelming public response,” Pirt told CBC. “A lot of people liked her, a lot of people came forward trying to be helpful… The problem is that with her nomadic nature, it’s very difficult to pinpoint her last movements. The timeline has got some gaps in it and we’re just trying to fill that in.”


Meanwhile, Pootoogook’s partner of eight years, William Watt, has been questioned by the police and he told APTN National News that he was hurt to learn that many friends of the late artist seem to think she was “fleeing from him in fear the week before she disappeared.”

“Her boyfriend keeps coming back for her looking for her, always takes her to his place and she even told me he tore up her drawings sometimes, don’t know why,” Pootoogook’s brother, Pauloose Joanasie, told APTN.

“She would always complain about the boyfriend, being abused. She was afraid,” Pootoogook’s friend Nancy Ainalik said.

“I don’t know if that is the truth, if that’s why she left because she didn’t want to be with me anymore,” Watt told APTN. “She didn’t leave a note or nothing. […] I yelled at her, I criticized her drinking. I called her a ‘fucking drunk. You fucking drunk, sober up.’ I guess that’s abuse,” Watt admitted, adding he believes Pootoogook made up stories about his abuse to justify her drinking.

The investigation continues.

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