8" Shaman Face by Late Samonie Toonoo (1969 - 2017)

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Samonie Toonoo

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Inuit art: Shaman
Size: 8" tall, 2.5" wide, 4" deep
Community: Cape Dorset, NU
Stone: Serpentine, bone antler
Inuit Artist: Samonie Toonoo

This piece is part of a series of the late Samonie's last works made before his recent death. Samonie shared a commonality with the late Annie Pootoogook in that he stylized his crafts to portray the daily struggles of today's Inuit.

This piece depicts in pop culture terms - a spirit shaman in the form of a young adult or teenager. For the Inuit youth, the struggles they had to endure was a common theme for Samonie. I fell in Love with it immediately. 

In purely formal terms this piece is an inspired assemblage of form and line, harmonious and really quite sophisticated.

When I saw this piece, I was immediately drawn to it. Completely captivated, and mesmerized... quite possibly from the spirit inside.

If I was to describe this piece in one word - "Timeless". It was made in 2016 no doubt, but you would never know it by looking at it. Is this a first generation, or modern avant-garde? To the beholder to decide. This piece will hold its disposition for eternity. It is "Timeless".

The foliage of hair nestled into the stone fused by the bone eyes bring all elements together to extenuate the highlights of the beautiful dark brown stone. This piece will no doubt garnish the chronicles on inuit art magazines and auction house covers in years to come.

Samonie Toonoo

Samonie (Sam) Toonoo was a carver born in 1969 in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU. His father, Toonoo, was a respected carver and his mother, Sheojuk Toonoo, was an accomplished printmaker. He was also the younger brother of artists Oviloo Tunnillie and Jutai Toonoo. Although from a family of prominent sculptors, his older brother Jutai has said he “think[s] Sam is the best carver in the family. He’s into his own thing” [1]. 

Toonoo is known for contrasting light and dark elements within his sculpture to visualize the connections between people and spirits, as well as themes of death, religion, pop culture and technology. 

Toonoo began carving in 1994 during his early twenties, focusing on realistic depictions of Arctic wildlife and traditional Inuit activities [2]. As his artistic practice developed, Toonoo began incorporating more human figures alongside text and and abstract elements. Though he stated that he preferred working with bone, his ability to combine materials resulted in dramatic effects [3]. His figures are often accented with hair, lending an organic quality to the work. His artistic hallmark is the contrast of figures sculpted from dark, veined serpentinite inset with polished antler carved into angular, deeply contoured faces. 

The facial features of his figures often have leering and sinister expressions [4]. He often depicted spirits escaping from and entering the bodies of his figures visualizing a connection between the physical and the spiritual. Toonoo’s spirits are not ethereal conceptions but physical manifestations that pierce, protrude from and suspend individuals. Toonoo’s sculpture also serves as commentary on colonial traumas working their way through Inuit culture. 

His work God’s System, Alcoholic and The Suicide (2005) confront the effects of Christianity and the residential school system, substance abuse and depression that can be found in Northern communities [5]. At the same time he made works that resist and confound these colonial narratives. Break Dancers (2007), which was part of an exhibition hosted by the TD Gallery of Inuit Art, depicts an unconventional subject for Inuit sculpture. Two figures appear side by side, one standing with his arms crossed, the other in a headspin. 

The figures’ defiant attitudes and showmanship are skillfully accentuated by subtle changes in the grain of the stone creating patterns in the figures’ clothing. Samonie Toonoo’s talent is acknowledged within the artistic community. In a "Dealer's Choice" for the Inuit Art Quarterly, Patricia Feheley said of Toonoo’s art that it “had a quiet dignity and monumentality unusual in the work of a younger artist” [6]. Though initially not widely exhibited his work continues to gain momentum among Southern audiences. The 2010 exhibition Scream: Ed Pien and Samonie Toonoo held at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery in Toronto was met with critical success. Toonoo passed away in 2017.



2017: The carving Break Dancers (2007) was featured in an ad by TD Canada Trust on the outside back cover of the Inuit Art Quarterly.



[1] Michelle Lewin, “Toonoo's Legacy: Three Generations of Artists in the Family of Oviloo Tunnillie,” Inuit Art Quarterly Vol. 18. No. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 2003):16.
[2] “Samonie Toonoo”, Spirit Wrestler Gallery, accessed November 24, 2017. 
[3] Lewin, “Toonoo’s Legacy”, 16.
[4] Leslie Boyd and Sandra Dyck, Dorset Seen (Ottawa: Carleton University Art Gallery, 2016), 123.  
[5] Ed Pein, “Collector’s Choice: Samonie Toonoo,” Inuit Art Quarterly Vol. 27. No. 4 (Winter 2014): 20-21.
[6] Patricia Feheley, “Dealer’s Choice: Samonie Toonoo,” Inuit Art Quarterly Vol. 17. No. 4 (Winter 2002): 46.

Picture courtesy of Inuit Art Foundation.

Samonie Toonoo (1969 - )

Community: Cape Dorset

Samonie is a son of the graphic artist Sheojuk and the carver Toonoo, and the younger brother of sculptors Oviloo Tunnillie and Jutai Toonoo. Samonie began carving in his early twenties, making realistic depictions of wildlife and figurative subjects; now, he tends towards expressing social issues or images that give sculptural shape to more abstract concepts that we all think about but rarely visualize.*

* Cape Dorset Sculpture, 2005.

2001 Small Sculptures by Great Artists, Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto, ON
2001 Baffin Island Sculpture, The Albers Gallery of Inuit Art, San Francisco, CA
2000 Small Sculptures by Great Artists, Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto, ON
1998 Sculpture from the Canadian Arctic, Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto, ON
1997 Singing & Dancing & Playing, Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto, ON
1979 Die Kuinst aud der Arktis, Inuit Galerie, Mannheim, Germany
Our Land Transforming:Celebrating the Enduring Spirit of the Inuit, Arctic Raven Gallery, Friday Harbour, WA

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