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The Legend of the Blind Boy

Toonoo Sharky
The Legend of the Blind Boy, 1998
Green stone, brown stone, ivory and baleen inlay
47 × 57 × 15 cm
Purchased 1999
© West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative Ltd.

Resident in Nunavut, Toonoo Sharky is a product of the new Arctic. By the time he was born, his parents and grandparents had been living in the settlement of Cape Dorset for almost a decade. The old camp dwellings, and the life associated with them, had been replaced by prefabricated, northern-style houses, with television, radio, store-bought food, and other modem conveniences. Yet even today life in a northern community remains special in many ways, as people continue to negotiate a path between long-established Inuit practices and southern influences.

Sharky left school early to join the Cape Dorset community of artists and work full-time at carving. Though he is still relatively young, his work has been included in many group shows, including the international traveling exhibition Transitions: Contemporary Indian and Inuit Art, which opened in Paris in 1997. Two solo exhibitions - one at the Inuit Galerie in Mannheim, Germany, in 1992, and another at the Canadian Guild of Crafts Quebec in Montreal, in 1998 - further enhanced his reputation as an emerging sculptor.

The Legend of the Blind Boy offers a fresh perspective on a well-known Inuit legend about a boy whose sight is magically restored through the help of a loon who dives into the water with him on his back. In this sculpture, Sharky presents us not with a particular episode but with an imaginative visual summary of the entire story. On the front, for example, the missing eye on the face symbolizes the boy's blindness, while the normal eye represents his sight regained. The large webbed feet on which the piece balances and the face on the back, framed by wings, refer to the loon, both as living creature and as spirit-helper. The dominant effect is one of integration - the loon, the blind boy, and the magic of their encounter.

Sharky learned to carve by observing others around him, in particular his grandfather, Kopapik Ragee, and his stepfather, Shorty Killiktee, both of them accomplished artists in their own right. Yet a world of difference separates his work from theirs. For Sharky's grandfather, carving was a new venture that he came to as an adult, after a lifetime of surviving on the land. Sharky, two generations later, grew up surrounded by artists, though he does not share the same perspectives on life that infuse their art. Coming after the camp life of former times, he rarely deals with it in his carving. What he chooses to create are elaborate composite works that are as much about exploring sculptural possibilities as about Inuit culture. He is best known for pieces that combine Arctic wildlife with human faces or masks. For earlier artists, depicting animals was a way of conveying to a younger generation a lifetime's experience of survival on the tundra; for Sharky, it is essentially a way of connecting with his elders and remembering them: "I really feel that I still carry my grandfather and Shorty with me. When I do fish with human heads, my grandfather is with me, and Shorty is with me when I do birds. But at the same time, I am me, not them. . . . I put them all together in my mind and make my own ideas."