Inuvialuk artist has solo show at Washington's Smithsonian

Abraham Anghik Ruben has become the first Inuvialuk sculptor to get a solo show at the Smithsonian's American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Inuit art at the Smithsonian

9 years ago
Artist Abraham Anghik Ruben is the first Inuvialuk sculptor to have a solo show at the Smithsonian's American Indian Museum in Washington. 6:14

Abraham Anghik Ruben has become the first Inuvialuk sculptor to get a solo show at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum in Washington, D.C.

The carver — who works in bone, stone, ivory and bronze — says his work reflects his roots in the North and Inuit core belief systems.

"For myself, it's an exhibition that I've been waiting 40 years for. It's taken 40 years to get to this stage in my life, and I'm extremely pleased with the events and the effort that went into making this exhibit," Ruben told CBC News in an interview last week.

The exhibit Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories: The Sculpture of Abraham Anghik Ruben opened in early October and continues until January. It centres around 23 of his sculptures, which combine Inuit and Norse mythology in their story-telling.

Curator Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad said the Smithsonian selected Ruben’s work in part because of its large scale, but also because of its bold contemporary vision.

"We were drawn to Abraham — Abraham has really distinguished himself in many ways," she said.

His carving of a narwhal tusk is not only large – more than 1.5 metres long — but also "reminds you very much of medieval art in the fineness of the sculpting," she said.

For the American Indian Museum exhibit, Ruben extrapolates a series of stories from pre-history about contact between Inuit, who spread from the western Arctic toward Baffin island and Greenland, and the Vikings, who spread from Scandinavia east to the British isles, Greenland and North America.

"So where I'm coming from with this exhibition, I'm using the idea of the inevitable consequences of contact as a way to put forward ideas and stories, images in stone," he said.

"There may not be the evidence in Inuit sagas, but when two peoples meet and have a relationship that lasts for several hundred years, a lot of things happen including warfare, trade, intermarriage, collective hunting, exchange of cultural ideas and exchange of technology."

Ruben’s meditations on Norse culture began with a circumpolar conference he attended in Irkutsk, Russia, where he met people from other northern cultures. He later studied Norse mythology, particularly the figures of Odin and Thor, which he compares to Inuit heroes.

Memories: An Ancient Past, by Abraham Anghik Ruben, Whale skull, Brazilian soapstone, and cedar. (Kipling Gallery/American Indian Museum)

He is particularly interested in how shamanism was practised in both cultures and ways that pre-historic societies form codes of behaviour.

Engelstad says there is recent archeological evidence of contact between the two cultures on North Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island.

Upwards of 500,000 people could pass through the exhibit, exposing them to fresh ideas about how culture is formed, she said.

Important cultural history

"I think what Abraham has done is in some way brought [cultural myths] in a monumental way, so they really face us and they move into our spaces," she said.

"He has done this with his own carving of Inuvialuit history and makes us realize the importance of this history, the importance of the history of native peoples throughout the Americas."

Ruben grew up in Paulatuk in Canada’s Northwest Territories. His father was a hunter and his mother was a seamstress, but he attended a residential school in Inuvik, returning home only during the summers.

After studying design at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ruben settled off the coast of British Columbia, setting up his studio on Salt Spring Island. He has worked as an artist since the 1970s.

While native artist Brian Jungen has shown his work at the Smithsonian and Inuk painter Annie Pootoogook has shown her work at New York’s Museum of the American Indian, Ruben is the first Inuvialuk to get a solo show in Washington.

Arctic warming trends

His vision extends to the warming trends in today’s Arctic, which may reflect ancient weather systems, but also picks up on the Inuit belief system that man "must have reverence for all creation."

"It has been called the ancient Inuit commandments and it is passed on through the Raven creation myth," he said.

"In 2004, I started forming sculpture dealing with the Arctic environment and there is a sculpture here called Sedna: Life out of Balance and it represents a contemporary and also ancient dynamic from the Arctic weather. From that first sculpture I came to understand that it all comes down to too much ice or too little ice, either extreme cold or warming trends and everything goes haywire," he added. 

Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories: The Sculpture of Abraham Anghik Ruben continues to Jan. 2, 2013.