Spotlight on Emerging Talent
“The smell of moose hide is a very warm, inviting smell. As an Indigenous person, it brings you home [from] wherever you are as there is this connection to the land and the smell of smoke and hide; it’s a very familiar smell.”
Home, and in particular one’s sensorial experiences of it–smell, touch and feeling–is a powerful theme in the work of Inuvialuk artist Maureen Gruben, who splits her time between Victoria, BC and her hometown of Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT. More specifically, Gruben’s work is directly influenced by the materiality of Tuktoyaktuk through her use of skins, hides, furs and bones. These organic materials are harvested from the community and are often mixed by the artist with manufactured materials such as bubble wrap, Velcro and plastic; she is attracted to manipulating and playing with synthetic objects for the sense experiences they can mimic. Gruben’s marrying of materials is intuitive and process-based, resulting in unique works that conjure ideas of place, memory and healing by placing value in a relationship to the land and what it provides.
On April 23, 2017 Gruben turned 1000 feet of frozen ocean surrounding Ibyug Pingo, (an ice-cored hill part of the Pingo Canadian Landmark) into the large-scale installation work Stitching My Landscape. The performance and resulting work including video and photographic documentation were commissioned by Partners In Art as part of LandMarks2017/Repéres2017 project, curated by Tania Willard. The work consists of 111 fishing holes threaded with a 300-metre strip of scarlet red broadcloth. Seen from above, Gruben’s labour intensive process reveals a striking zig-zag stitch, puncturing the surface of the icy Arctic landscape.
Maureen Gruben, Stitching My Landscape, 2017, red broadcloth and ice, dimensions variable PHOTO KYRA KORDOSKI
On first pass, the graphic quality of Stitching My Landscape appears almost violent, with the shock of the colour against the pristine, ice-covered seascape evoking hurt and trauma–the loss of blood. Simultaneously, however, the stitching can be read as a suture holding two sides together. For Gruben, however, the imagery is deeply rooted in personal memory, family and community. The artist recalls watching her brother, a hunter, carefully handle a caught seal, spreading the intestine out on the snow to be used later. Seal, with its central role in Inuit life, has long sustained Arctic communities through both nourishment and protection from a harsh environment through sealskin clothing. In Stitching My Landscape Gruben directly challenges and trains the inexperienced eye to look again, to see the blood red cloth anew as a marker of vitality and life-giving power.
For Gruben, working with organic materials means making use of all that’s available. In addition to animal skins and hides, the artist also works with bones, teeth and organs such as beluga intestine. In Consumed (2017), Gruben encased everyday objects such as crayons, scraps of felt, beads, a bible and a phone charger in handmade, transparent beluga intestine pouches. While some objects in Consumed are more overtly political–the encased bible especially seems stifled by the material, contained and partially obscured–Gruben also provides viewers with lighter, more humorous moments too. When discussing the piece from her studio in Victoria, Gruben recalls cleaning the intestine in the ocean near Tuktoyaktuk the previous summer while a group of teens watched from the beach. When asked about what she was doing, she responded “making condom encasings,” garnering laughs from the group. Her inclusion of a Lifestyles condom in one of the pouches is her nod to them.
Maureen Gruben, Consumed, 2017, beluga intestine, thread, found objects, dimensions variable PHOTOS KYRA KORDOSKI
Gruben’s work occupies a singular space. It emphasizes the importance of home and the potential healing power in embracing and supporting cultural practices such as hunting and sewing that are tied to the land, lineage and survival. At the same time her work appears abstract, leaving it open to multiple interpretations and experiences. It is in this space that a viewer is drawn into minute sensorial experiences, such as the texture of Beluga intestine pouches or the smell of a caribou hide blanket. By allowing her chosen materials to guide the final works, Gruben creates new powerful sensory experiences and perspectives. It is no wonder that her career is taking off quickly; with a major solo exhibition at Libby Leshgold Gallery, Vancouver last year and more exhibitions on the horizon, Maureen Gruben is an artist to watch.
To learn more about Maureen Gruben be sure to pick up a copy of our summer 2018 issue on Skin, which hits newsstands June 15!
 Kyra Kordoski, "Shift; Rise: Maureen Gruben's Ungalaq" in Ungalaq (When Stakes Come Loose) (Vancouver, BC: grunt gallery, 2017).