A look into the self portraiture of the Late Jutai Toonoo (1959–2015)
The late Jutai Toonoo is renowned for his carvings and drawings depicting his lived experience of a changing Arctic. Like many Inuit artists of the postmodern generation, he was conflicted with the traditional and modern worlds of the arctic tackling themes of identity politics however what makes his narrative so special is the very introspective approach to his work.
His portfolio displayed a powerful shift away from the shamanistic and traditional subject matter and presents a focus on the individual and personal struggles that followed social changes in Inuit life. Furthermore, his art acts as a reaction to the western expected romanticised view of the Arctic and appears very emotionally raw. Toonoo manages to combine this theme with profound energy through the use of oil pastel.
Through self portraiture, which is not normally the chosen type of art for many Inuit artists, he creates a commentary on the inner life of his own psyche. His self-portraits are often large to medium scale works on paper which gives him the freedom he needs to express such a deep conflict of thoughts through the vivid and chaotic medium of oil pastel. The exploration of the complex psychological elements of the self distorts the traditional representations of human experience commonly created by Inuit Artists.
Toonoo’s emotional self-portraits express themes ranging from anger, sadness, joy, desire, wonder and philosophical acceptance of the process of ageing and illness.
In the self-portrait entitled ‘Composition, 2013’ he portrays the human face in a liminal and transformative state. His face and figure fade into the warm and almost fiery background. The playful combination of light and shadow create an almost dreamlike cast over him.
In Uvanga/Self 2012, toonoo stares back at the viewer, not in a confrontational manner but rather in a calm and engaging manner. The edges of the skull fade into the overpowering red background almost like an overlay. One can articulate this to be a representation of the dissipating dividing line between his internal and external realities and his ability to cope with the cultural change which has been at the forefront of his entire life and career as an artist.
Jutai Toonoo manages to engage with the viewer directly with his commanding gaze. With his slouched posture, and his casually modern t-shirt he provides non-Inuit viewers with a view into the reality of the Arctic rebelling against all the stereotypical notions of how an Inuk should look in a gallery space. He invites the viewer to engage in his reality and experience the psychological conflict of rapid cross-culture.
In an interview with Inuit Art Quarterly in 2011, Toonoo recounted that “he likes faces”, that unique expressions and moods inspire him. He consciously focused on self-portraiture out of fear of upsetting his subject. The drawings of his own face, allowed him to channel his own emotions and anxieties accordingly. He described his process as an experience to delve deep into his own mind, to allow the artwork to become an extension of himself.
Pieces such as Self (2012) and Composition (2013) are evidence of a process through which Toonoo poured his entire being into the work, leaving all of himself transferred onto the page, so much so that initially he literally hated the finished product, not because he didn’t like it, but because it took all his energy to create it.
Jutai Toonoo’s work has been exhibited extensively across Canada, in the US, and in Europe. His drawings and carvings can be found in private, corporate and public collections, including the Winnipeg Art Gallery, The Art Gallery of Ontario, The McMichael and the National Gallery of Canada.
If you want to read more about Inuit Art, Check out our article series “Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View”Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Art, The Allusions of Self Portraits