Article by John Fleming

in Arctic Canada

RECENT EXHIBITION at Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto featuring works by Inuit artist and photographer Barry Pottle sheds light on a government of Canada policy during the period 1944 to 1969, when the federal government issued numbered tags of identification to the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic in two broad regions east and west. These tags of hard round cardboard or leather were stamped on the obverse with a centred image of the Crown and the word Canada printed below. Following the upper edge of the tag its functional intent was succinctly described as “Eskimo Identification.” On the reverse side, E or W indicated the broad geographical and regional distribution of the subject populations east or west, followed directly by an individual identification number across the diameter. This number was to be worn at all times, or at the very least committed to memory.

The use of numerical systems to record human identity by governments and institutions has ominous precedents in both early and contemporary history. The inevitable effect is to objectify the subject groups, communities, and individuals who comprise the aggregate numbers represented by such practices.

Through his photographic record, artist Barry Pottle has given us access to this absent content and its still living reality in a visual overlay of lost and found images. My intention here is not to review the conditions and policies of this dehumanizing federal program, but rather to examine the ways in which the urge to identity of self, community, and traditions lived, through a few surviving material fragments, or “shards,” can be retrieved from a recent past of missing identities

The requirement for individuals to carry these tags at all times led to multiple additions to the tags in a variety of media and markings arising from our unconscious need to represent ourselves in some tangible form: name, date of birth, pen, pencil, ink, syllabics, or other shapes. The small circular form of the object with a smaller punched hole at the rim is an invitation to hang the tag around one’s neck as with a piece of jewellery, intimate and personal. Within the lexicon of geometric figures, the circle is by nature the most complete of all visual concepts. On the obverse of the tag the Crown at the centre also has an iconic form as a physical representation of the trappings of majesty and display, thus creating ambiguity and tension between obverse and reverse sides at the level of meaning, as well as a secondary decorative content.

The Indigenous population subjected to the effects of dehumanization and alienation, reacted over time in diverse ways, opening a resonant source of potential narratives. Barry Pottle’s extraordinary photography tracks and produces through its technical processes and perspective its own digital origins, analogous to the tags, that turns numerical loss to digital gain in the visual texture of his imagination captured in the portraits of Inuit survivors arranged to face these shards across the time and space of the exhibition.

John Fleming is the Editor of Ornamentum. Barry Pottle’s The Awareness Series was part of the travelling exhibition De-Colonize Me, which featured the work of six contemporary Aboriginal artists whose works challenge, interrogate, question, and reveal Canada’s long history of colonization. It is also included in the extensive catalogue of the same name, written by Heather Igloliorte, Brenda L. Croft, and Steve Loft.

Willie; Leena; Mathewsie; Leeteea
Digital Photographs on Baryta
Fibre Rag
Edition of 15
Paper size: 20” x 24”;
Image 17” x 22”
Barry Pottle, from The Awareness
Series, courtesy Feheley Fine Arts