Sculptor Abraham Ruben comes home with Yellowknife exhibit

Inuvialuk artist Abraham Ruben has shown his works at some of the world's most prestigious museums and galleries. His largest N.W.T. exhibit to date opened in Yellowknife this week.

Abraham Ruben's largest N.W.T. show explores contact between Vikings and ancient Inuit

Abraham Ruben's elaborate soapstone carvings and bronze sculptures have graced galleries and museums across Canada and around the world — including the Smithsonian in Washington.

Now the artist and his work have returned to the Northwest Territories. His new exhibit, Aurora Borealis, opened April 30 at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife. 

"For me it's like coming home," Ruben says.

It's the largest showing of his work ever held in the territory, including 30 soapstone carvings and bronze sculptures. Other pieces are made of whalebone and ivory.

His sculptures tell the stories of contact between Norse adventurers and the ancient Inuit whale hunters more than 1,000 years ago. 

Abraham Ruben's 2012 sculpture "Under The Northern Sky" is carved from Brazilian soapstone and depicts walrus, polar bears and falcons. Ruben's work explores themes of migration and mythology of the Vikings and Inuit. (Collection of the Kipling Gallery)

"Under the Northern Sky" is made of soapstone. 

"You have the Viking ship and beneath it you have the polar bear, walrus and falcon."

The works explore themes of migration and mythology of the Vikings and ancient Inuit.

"People were on the move, mass migrations, not just [in] the Arctic but other parts of the world. The events that took place between the Vikings and the Inuit helped to change the lives of people in northern Europe and beyond by introducing new materials, technology and maritime dynamics."

From North to South

Ruben has his own story of migration. He was born in a camp south of Paulatuk, N.W.T., in 1951. As a young boy Abraham lived with his family on the land and moved with the changing seasons. His sculptures, like the carving "Inuvialuit," reflect that heritage.

After studying design in Fairbanks, Alaska, Ruben put down roots in Yellowknife in 1975. He built a studio in a geodesic dome outside of the city. He lived and worked there for five years, developing his carving skills and ideas for bronze casting. 

"[I was] using Yellowknife as a staging area. This is where I took my dreams as an artist and went south," he says. 

"[This is] where hopes and dreams and aspirations as an individual started. This is where a lot of things that I do today got their foothold."

Ruben also battled with, and overcame, issues with substance abuse. 

Abraham Ruben's 2011 sculpture 'Inuvialuit' is made from narwhal tusk and Brazilian soapstone. (Collection of Nick and Elaine Tsimidis)

"I had been an alcoholic since the age of 16 to 36," he says. "Out of those experience I gained a lot of insight of what it means to be human.

'Truly an honour'

Today Abraham Ruben's works can be seen around the world. The Prince of Wales Heritage Centre has a small permanent collection.

"We know Abraham Ruben has been in public collections in the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] and the National Gallery of Canada," says Barb Cameron, director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

"Internationally he is well known. It is truly an honour to have the show here. It's really something of a really high calibre."

Cameron says the exhibit will help draw attention to the North. 

"We have 50,000 visitors each year from all over the world," she says.

"I think it will show the world how talented northern artists are."

Aurora Borealis will be on display for one year.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?