An artist reflects on the rich history that forms the bedrock for Inuit artists today. In tracing the past, both his own and that of the field, Abraham Anghik Ruben considers the undeniable challenges and the vast potential ahead for the current and future generations.
I was born in November 1951, in the Western Arctic near the settlement of Paulatuk in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT. My family was nomadic, as were most families at the time. Even though Christianity had been introduced early on, most Inuit still carried on the traditions and cultural practices of our ancestors. We saw ourselves as part of the land and its daily rhythms, and we paid close attention to our physical, cultural and spiritual needs with the understanding that harmony and balance in all things were integral to our survival.
Abraham Anghik Ruben Angatuk (2009) Whalebone 52 × 125 × 34 cm
Days, weeks, months and years were spent in pursuit of game, shelter and fire. Our entertainment and education came from the oral tradition, told to us by our parents and elders. Their hands gave us an awareness of the fragile nature of our survival. We understood the cycles of life from the migration of birds and animals on the land. This early phase of my life gave me the foundation that I would need for my physical, cultural and spiritual survival.
In 1959, at the age of seven, I was sent to a residential school in Inuvik, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, until 1970, along with other children from across the Arctic. The years were, at best, a dark smudge in my life. It was my dark night of the soul. I was physically, mentally and psychologically abused. I became an alcoholic at the age of 16, until I gained sobriety at the age of 36. It took many years, and the love and patience of my wife and family, to heal the damage that had been done. I was just one of many.
Abraham Anghik Ruben So Much Like a Man (2015) Brazilian steatite 91 × 33.5 × 26 cm
My artistic career began in 1971 as a student of Ronald Senungetuk, an artist and resident teacher at the Native Art Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. For the next four years, my training consisted of sculpture, graphics, jewellery and the study of Inuit art history from the early books of art historian George Swinton to those by archaeologist and anthropologist William Fitzhugh. Ron encouraged me to mix traditional materials and techniques with contemporary design to create new dynamic works. After leaving Alaska in 1975, I travelled to Vancouver, BC, and began work for Mr. Lin Kye Lee, a successful businessman and prospector, who gave me an early introduction to stone quarrying and prospecting. For almost three decades, I assisted Mr. Lee in mining and quarrying for steatite and maintaining his claims, while developing my artistic endeavors. Prior to his passing in 2004, Mr. Lee gifted me the mining claims in the Fraser Valley. In 2014, my crew and I found the source of jade that he had spoken about, but felt I should find on my own. I found it. I feel that Mr. Lee would be pleased.
Ronald Senungetuk leading a workshop with Abraham Anghik Ruben at the Ottawa School of Art, 1991 PHOTO LARRY OSTROM
Over the past forty years, I have sought to build on the training that I received from my mentor and friend Ron, and I have had the benefit of meeting and working with artists and craftspeople across Canada and internationally. These exchanges have led me to view the world from a multifaceted perspective. Similarly, the tumultuous changes and unpredictable climate shifts that are taking place across the Arctic continue to affect my worldview and professional endeavors, particularly my artistic research into the connection between my ancestors and the Norse Vikings of a thousand years ago. Significant environmental change was the principle cause that led these two diverse Arctic peoples to Greenland around this time. As an artist I have attempted to bring this story to life, to mold skin and bones into a new narrative and this search into a long-vanished Arctic world, brings into focus the world we now live in. I understand what took place in the distant past as coming full circle and call these untold stories the “inevitable consequences of contact”. I have always been in awe of the thousand years of artistic talent and inspiration that has come hand in hand with the development of Inuit culture from the Bering Sea and beyond.
Abraham Anghik Ruben Ellesmere (2017) Brazilian steatite 38.5 × 29 × 26 cm
As has been documented by Swinton and others, in Canada’s Arctic an artistic naissance took place throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It is this phase that was one of my early influences as an artist. I wanted to be able to create works of this power and dynamism. Today, I can look back and I see the legacy of this artistic blossoming and the many problems and challenges that artists are facing today as a result. As the Arctic underwent a period of significant uncertainty, starting in the early 1950s, the federal government began its arts and crafts initiatives to provide means of employment to Inuit communities. Individuals like James Houston, Terry Ryan and Gabriel Gély travelled to far-flung camps to see if the ancient hunting skills of Inuit could be harnessed to local materials, including bone, steatite and ivory. To their delight, Inuit were naturals at manipulating local materials because of their skills at creating beautiful everyday objects and crafting elaborate hunting tools and implements. The early efforts by Inuit at these new arts initiatives took time and patience, but their commitment paid off with the explosion of dynamic works in stone and bone and on paper that made household names of many early artists from numerous Arctic communities.
The participants of these first forays into the new economic initiative required minimal formal instruction and the themes they were asked to portray, including wildlife, hunting and domestic scenes and the spirit world, were subjects of which they had an intimate knowledge. The men and women of this generation had a close understanding of the land; most were nomadic, following the ancient paths of their ancestors. They lived and breathed in the light of myths, stories and legend and held true to the knowledge handed down from generations. They created magnificent works of art, and their distinct artistic expression became an easily identifiable image of Canada on the world stage.
Abraham Anghik Ruben Memories: An Ancient Past (2010) Whalebone, Brazilian steatite and BC cedar 176 × 207 × 62 cm
Artists of the second generation, active between the 1960s and 1980s, followed in the footsteps of their parents. Many moved from far-flung camps to start new lives in the small towns and hamlets springing up across Canada’s Arctic. This generation was one step removed from the land; however, they were still tied spiritually and culturally to the land. They understood the calling of the spirits of their ancestors and the spirit realm. This generation had exposure to both worlds, with secure incomes, the ability to hunt and fish as they chose and access to the goods and amenities provided by the communities they lived in. This generation also received the benefits of new materials, art supplies, government-sponsored shipping, marketing and sales ventures that expanded the whole industry into international markets. Building on the works of their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents, they introduced a dynamic range of artworks.
The third generation of Inuit artists, whose main artistic formation and output was from the 1990s to 2010s, is made up of those individuals who by and large live in established Arctic communities. Some have chosen to live in the South, closer to materials, markets and the broader world. Many are finding their artistic expression in a variety of media and through exposure to the artistic forms and styles of their contemporaries. In the North, they are weekend hunters and fisherman. Whole families gather to renew old friendships, sharing in the rich harvest of the land, the retelling of stories and passing on ancient knowledge to future generations. Three times removed from the world of their predecessors, with no visible direct links to their ancestral ways, this generation of artists has the difficult task of creating works of art comparable to the dynamism, power and caliber of that of their parents and grandparents. Many feel they must create images of birds, animals and spirits without the intimate firsthand experience of their subject matter. The art dealers and market make unreasonable demands on these artists to create great works without the knowledge of the past, which in turn hinders them from breaking away from these long-established practices and entrenched marketing models.
Abraham Anghik Ruben Freya (2016) Brazilian steatite 98 × 61 × 23 cm
We come now to the fourth generation of Inuit artists working today, a group that is some 50 years or more removed from their grandparents, who first saw the flowering of a new dynamic art form. This present generation must find artistic expression amidst the constant noise and electronic drabble of their daily lives. With the added weight of substance, sexual and physical abuse, suicide and cultural disconnect, an artist living in the North today must be thickskinned, innovative and resilient to make a go of it. Most are faced with uncertain futures and many choose to take on stable jobs, rather than invest in a creative pursuit with no guarantee. Most troubling, however, is the lack of training or skills to become exemplary. Many of these young artists live in cultural and spiritual limbo, without an intimate understanding of the land and its creatures or the mythology of the shamanic world. The past is distant and removed, the present is demanding and offers little in providing answers and viable future pathways for an artist to pursue productive and inspiring lives aren’t always direct. The co-ops and other institutions provide some answers and leadership in this area, but their efforts sometimes fall short of what is needed to ensure the survival of arts in the North.
Abraham Anghik Ruben Passage of Spirits (2011) Whalebone, Brazilian steatite and BC cedar 56.5 × 96 × 32 cm
Over and above the daily concerns of today’s artist is the issue of a changing Arctic climate and the dramatic effects it is having on local communities. The accelerated pace of change in the North brings with it great challenges. Those most at risk are the children who must bear the brunt of the shifting climate; this is their future. As an artist and an Inuvialuit entrepreneur, I am making plans for the establishment of an Arctic Children’s Fund that will attempt to tackle the issues facing our children today. We must find solutions to the far-reaching effects of alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide and food insecurity by focusing on education and the preservation of culture through language and the arts. I believe we must take action now as we face a multitude of problems with limited resources.
Artists, in particular, must see and respond to this new Arctic reality, perhaps by choosing to become social and cultural activists using their changing environment as themes in their work. For those who follow this path, I can offer a viable solution to ensure the survival of Inuit cultural, spiritual and material traditions through artistic expression. This solution is one that was offered to me as a young man under Ron’s tutelage and requires that art centres be set up in Nunavut and elsewhere in the North to provide artists with opportunities for multidisciplinary programs with a focus on formal training in the contemporary arts. The disciplines would include sculpture, painting, drawing, graphics, fine crafts and an emphasis on traditional and contemporary design. Such spaces could partner with existing institutions in the North to allow artists the choice of where to study as currently most are forced to travel south for this level of comprehensive training. Crucial to the success of this approach is the marrying of technical training with a much deeper aesthetic rooted in our cultural and spiritual past.
Abraham Anghik Ruben speaks to the crowd at the opening of Out of Tradition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1989 COURTESY WINNIPEG ART GALLERY
I believe immersing the prospective artist in classical training will enable the individual to develop skills and new ways of viewing their cultural, material and spiritual traditions. Providing young artists with a range of tools will prepare them to greet expanding markets as the Northwest Passage welcomes increasing numbers of visitors. With this grounding, artists will find new forms of expressions in an ever-changing Arctic world. In many ways it feels like a new beginning, so let’s see what we can do.
This Feature was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.