Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award shortlister Maureen Gruben is no stranger to accolades. Since 2017, Gruben’s visibility as a leading Canadian artist has only continued to grow exponentially with major exhibitions, acquisitions and prizes filling her CV. But this now-global public recognition only tells part of her story.
To better frame the importance of Gruben’s artistic contributions, the IAQ Editorial Director Britt Gallpen reached out to five key people who have worked with the artist over the years to share their perspectives on Gruben’s achievements, her connection to home and her ambitious and growing practice.
Maureen Gruben Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019) Digital photograph 108 cm x 304.8 cmCANADA COUNCIL ART BANK COLLECTION PHOTO KYRA KORDOSKI © THE ARTIST
Maureen is one of those exciting artists who has stayed home, stayed North, stayed on her land and still managed to have quite a far reaching contemporary art career, where her work travels outside of there. I think the most moving part is the way she gets inspiration from where she is, because she loves where she is.
I was thinking about our first acquisition of her work at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019). To me, this piece really shows her connection to place, her sense of humour, her love of the rhythm of her community. While the AGO has a longstanding collection of Inuit art, Maureen is coming from a different place than many of the artists that have been collected: working in performance, photography and large-scale installations.
Maureen’s work sits in the place that's occupied also by artists like Rebecca Belmore or Faye Heavyshield: artists who have a profound skill level and a profound relationship to materiality of place—materials they grew up with, that are both organic and human-made, and materials that have long precontact histories. She has a skill level in sewing and making that can only come when you're raised in a family that does those kinds of things. But then, she takes it into the world of contemporary questions.
Her work is honest, skilled and deeply profound in its engagement with its materials and content. She's the real deal. And by sticking to what she believes in, people have come to her work, because it is important and meaningful. She's never given up those connections that feed her practice.
Wanda Nanibush, who nominated Maureen Gruben for the 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, is an Anishinaabe-kwe image and word warrior, curator and community organizer from Beausoleil First Nation. Currently Nanibush is the inaugural curator of Indigenous art and co-head of the Indigenous + Canadian Art department at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Maureen Gruben (right) with Tania Willard (left) near Tuktuuyaqtuuq (Tuktoyaktuk), Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT in 2016PHOTO KYRA KORDOSKI COURTESY TANIA WILLARD
The first project I worked on with Maureen was CUSTOM MADE / Tsitslem te stem te ck'ultens-kuc (2015) at the Kamloops Art Gallery, which was looking at artists working between traditional materials and contemporary ideas, and skill-based art. I was introduced to Maureen's practice through Peter Morin. So I'm really indebted to Peter, who sent me early images of Maureen's work from her time at Emily Carr University. She was using these really beautiful fox stretcher frames in very Maureen kinds of ways. I was really interested in the work. When it came time to curate the show in Kamloops, I really wanted to work with Maureen who by then was using these beautiful little bits of leftover traditional smoke-tanned moosehide. She was working with people back home in the North. There are such important principles for many Indigenous peoples on not wasting, especially something as labour-intensive and beautiful as traditional smoke-tanned hide. The work held this advanced language of sculptural form with Indigenous materiality.
Stitching My Landscape (2017) came shortly after, which was created as part of LandMarks2017. When I visited Maureen in Tuktuuyaqtuuq, I just felt like her work was ready to hit the world. It was the exact right time in her practice. She was ready to go.
Part of what makes Maureen's practice unique is that she has both a strong relationship to Tuktuuyaqtuuq as an Inuvialuk person, as well as lots of different experiences in the world. She knows her land. And, of course, her materiality is exciting—it gives us pause to really think about the ways that climate change is impacting the North, the resilience of the land, people and culture there. It's all very present and very resolved in her work.
And there is a deep caring in her materials—she's not just forming them to what she wants—as well as a really important level of community engagement that happens even through those material choices. I think you feel that intention in the work.
Tania Willard is a mixed Secwépemc and settler artist whose research intersects with land-based art practices. Her practice activates connection to land, culture and family, centring art as an Indigenous resurgent act, through collaborative projects such as BUSH Gallery and support of language revitalization in Secwépemc communities.
In process shot of Maureen Gruben's Stitching My Landscape (still) (2017) PHOTO TANIA WILLARD © THE ARTIST
I first became aware of Maureen Gruben’s work through her now-iconic piece, Stitching My Landscape (2017), created for LandMarks2017 and curated by Tania Willard. That piece, like so much of Gruben’s work, is both methodical and piercing. Earlier this year, we were thrilled to acquire Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun (2019) for the Canada Council Art Bank collection. At 10 feet wide, the work is the largest in scale from this last acquisition cycle and will be included in an exhibition of recent purchases presented in the Âjagemô exhibition space in Ottawa from June 2023 to May 2024.
Although I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Gruben in person, her voice is so clearly articulated in her work. In Moving with joy, the aesthetic of the image draws us in—each sled has its own personality and history, and is such an important mechanism of transportation in the North—but in many ways this work is a wake up call. There is a sense of urgency to this piece. We can’t consider these qamutiik without also considering the meaning behind them—which includes how and why they are used and how that function is slowly changing with the ecological impacts of climate change. Gruben is an important artist, dealing with important issues. Having this work as part of the Art Bank collection matters also because of where this work will eventually be placed and where it will be seen and by whom. It’s our hope that by acquiring this work, Gruben’s voice will be heard by the people who can have an impact on many of the timely issues she raises.
Amy Jenkins is the Head of the Canada Council Art Bank. She leads the Art Bank’s operations and the delivery of its programs, including art rental, loans, exhibitions and outreach activities. In 2022, Jenkins oversaw the open call for purchase, which included more than 1,700 applications from artists across the country and resulted in 72 purchases.
Maureen Gruben Aidainnaqduanni, Morning (2020) Archival inkjet 81.3 × 121.9 cmCOURTESY KYRA KORDOSKI © THE ARTIST
I first met Maureen when she came to the Museum of Anthropology with Chuck (Charles) Arnold, former director of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. They were working together on the Inuvialuit Living History project. They spent part of the day looking at some pieces in the collection here and I was lucky to spend the time with her. It was a memorable visit and, in the years since, she's come back to the museum several times.
In 2019 the museum was contacted by the family of D.L. Stossel who had worked at High Arctic weather stations such as Alert Bay and Mould Bay from the 1960s to the 1980s. Every time he would come home, he would bring gifts for his daughters. After he passed away one of his daughters, Carmen Stossel, kindly reached out and asked if there were some works in their collection that might find the next part of their journey here at the museum. Towards the end of the process, they said, we have this box of furs and we don't know what to do with them. And it just so happened that I was in touch with Maureen, who was doing some work at Emily Carr University and she was more than happy to take those furs to give them a second life. Those polar bear furs became part of Aidainnaqduanni, Aurora (2020), with the tripods she found in the garbage dump. Which is actually rather remarkable, isn't it? It's amazing what she does, and it’s also astonishing the way that everything sort of came together with that piece.
Maureen is just a wonderful person to get to spend time with. She has an incredible willingness to share and you always feel when you're talking with her that not only is she sharing deep expertise with you, but she's also genuinely interested in you and your thoughts. She is one of those people that cares really deeply about others.
Dr. Susan Rowley is Director of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) and an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. She first travelled north in 1974 as a field assistant on an archaeological excavation in northern Baffin Island and was captivated by the people and the land. Sue has worked with Inuit elders on historical research and with Inuit youth on archaeology projects. She is currently working with First Nations communities in British Columbia.
Artists Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Maureen Gruben in Anchorage, Alaska following the opening of Aiviq and Nanuq at the Anchorage Museum in 2018PHOTO SONYA KELLIHER-COMBS
With Maureen, when we met each other for the first time, the connection between us was instantaneous. She came here for a talk we did as part of the Aiviq and Nanuq (2018-2019) exhibition at the Anchorage Museum about working with marine mammal products. It was like meeting my long-lost sister. Early on, I was in a meeting for the show, and the curators were talking about how they were having problems getting Maureen’s work here because it was made with polar bear fur. And I'm like, “Well, I think you should just make it about that. Get a life-size decal of her work and talk about that.” They ended up doing that and it was very powerful, the absence of the physical work.
Then in 2020, we tried so hard to do the reciprocal residency program. We ended up doing it remotely, since it was COVID. We were sending each other pictures all the time, we still send each other pictures. We also talked a lot about borders and distance and how we both really feel we should have access to our family and materials across borders.
There are many layers to what Maureen does but I think the thing that I love the most—and something that I value a lot in my life—is that it's really important for her to be in the place where she lives. We both went to school somewhere else to further our education and we travel out, but it's important for us to be in this land and in our home, in this place. I think that, in turn, impacts the work that she creates, which is so grounded in place and family and community, and looking and seeing and experiencing.
Her work has this sense of time, it's very deliberate, and she also understands the preciousness of her materials. But, you know, she's not afraid to use them. I like the way that she just really goes for it. In a big way.
Sonya Kelliher-Combs was raised in the Northwest Alaska community of Nome. Through her mixed-media painting and sculpture, Kelliher-Combs offers a chronicle of the ongoing struggle for self-definition and identity in the Alaskan context. She is a recipient of numerous fellowships, has served on numerous boards as an advocate and advisor and currently lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska.
Read more about the other shortlisted artists.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.