Abraham Anghik Ruben (1951 -)
"Seeking Shelter (A hunter is thinking about his family who are waiting in the igloo for hiim to return)"
Steatite and Soapstone
15" x 20" x 7"
Provenance: Private Collection, Toronto; Purchased from Gallerie Le Chariot Montreal, QB
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Powerful, compelling, exquisite are but a few of the words to describe the work of master sculptor Abraham Anghik Ruben. Stories, myths and legends of ancient Northern cultures find new life and expression through his work. Linked by strong narratives, his sculptures speak of cultures lost and times forgotten.
Abraham was born in 1951 in a camp south of Paulatuk, Northwest Territories and east of the Mackenzie River Delta. This region is home to the Mackenzie Inuit or Inuvialuit. The late 1890s would see the arrival of large-scale commercial whaling fleets into the region soon followed by an influx of Inuit from Alaska.
Abraham’s own great-grandparents, noted shamans Apakark and Kagun came from the Bering Sea region of Alaska during this time. Abraham pays tribute to them in the sculpture Apakark and Kagan-Journey to the Underworld (plate 14). By the time of Abraham’s birth, Inuit culture was in the midst of a profound change that would forever alter their traditional way of life and set the stage for Abraham’s lifelong quest to re-discover and connect with his roots.
Up until the age of 8 Abraham lived with his family on the land migrating with the changing patterns of the seasons. As it had been for thousands of years, life was hard and the family needed to rely on the skills and efforts of all members to ensure survival in one of the harshest environments on earth. In 1955 this existence was to change dramatically for Abraham when heartbreaking time for the family is eloquently captured in The Last Goodbye. This same scene would be repeated again when Abraham and his other brothers were themselves sent away. This sadness and horror of life at these schools would come to light many years later, but for Abraham the pain endured during those eleven years came early and would continue to haunt him throughout his life as we see in Wrestling with my Demons.
Abraham’s quest to reconnect with his past found artistic form in 1971 when he attended the Native Arts Centre at the University of Alaska studying under Ronald Senungetuk. Throughout the 1970s Abraham pursued a career as an artist working in the varied media of sculpture, jewelry, prints and drawings. He would soon catch the attention of art dealers across Canada including Jack Pollock who showed his sculptures at his gallery in Toronto in a series of solo exhibitions.
In 1986 Abraham moved to Salt Spring Island where he continues to live and work with his wife Patricia Donnelly and their children. Since that time, Abraham’s interests in exploring the stories, myths and legends of his ancestors have found artistic form in a multitude of works, which have been exhibited and collected internationally. His quest has also led in recent years to the exploration of other cultures and people who inhabited the Northern hemisphere. In his last solo exhibition, curated by Darlene Coward Wight at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2001, Abraham stated that:
I have always tried to learn from others, either Inuit or other elderly people who can pass on their knowledge of what life is about. I try to put that into my sculpture.
Abraham’s mother’s aunt, Paniabuluk, assisted Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson on many of his expeditions. She became his Inuit wife. Stefansson, the son the Icelandic immigrants, was born in Manitoba in 1879 and spent the winter of 1906-07 living with the Mackenzie Inuit. In 1928 Captain Larson of the St. Roche spent the winter in Langton Bay with Abraham’s grandfather Ruben Anghik and his family. These historical family connections inspired Abraham’s interest in people of the Nordic countries.
In late 2004, while recovering from an ordeal with cancer, Abraham gained a new perspective on life that enabled his artistic practice to reach a new high.
Many of the sculptures in the years since 2005 centre on Abraham’s interest in the relationship between the Inuit and the Viking Norse Centuries before European explorers “discovered” North America the Vikings set sail along the icy waters from their Scandinavian homelands eventually finding their way to the shores of what is now Canada. The powerful works To the North Western Shores and Odin dramatically recounts these voyages. The parallels between these works and Inuit stories of migration are striking. Men, women, and children travel together by boat with all of their worldly possessions in search of better lands in which to live bringing along with them their culture and spiritual beliefs. In these works, the wooden, dragon prowed ship of the Norse replaces the traditional Inuit umiak.
As a storyteller, Abraham builds upon that which he already knows. From his own perspective, he tells the stories of these encounters between Inuit and Viking Norse. Abraham sees great similarities between the two cultures including the practice of shamanism and a respect and reverence for the land He seeks to bring to life the experiences of the Vikings in North America from a contemporary view – stories, which have not yet found a voice.
It is this interest in the parallel cultures of Viking Norse and Inuit that has resulted in some of the most powerful works that Abraham has ever produced. Bold, dramatic and expertly rendered, Abraham has honed his talent to a new level – we are witnessing an artist at his peak.