Art Works Blog

Sculpting a Culture's Story

Memories: An Ancient Past by Abraham Anghik Ruben (Inuvialuit, b. 1951). Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, 2010. Whale skull, Brazilian soapstone, and cedar; 176.0 x 207.0 x 62.0 cm. Collection of Kipling Gallery, Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Last month, the 18th Annual Inuit Studies Conference was held in Washington, DC---the first time the event has been hosted in the continental U.S. To complement the conference, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) mounted the exhibit Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories, which will be on view through January 2.

Featuring 23 sculptures by Inuvialuit artist Abraham Anghik Ruben, the exhibition focuses on the parallels between two ancient, sea-faring Arctic cultures: the Canadian Inuit and the Norse. As early as 900 A.D., the Norse came ashore in Greenland, Newfoundland, Baffin Island, and other areas of northeastern Canada---areas where they likely came into contact with indigenous residents. Through his sculptures, Ruben---the first Canadian Inuit sculptor to have a solo exhibition at NMAI---explores the mythology, history, interaction, and common concerns of these two peoples.

“Abraham is forcing us to throw aside the European history that we like to believe,” said exhibit curator Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad. “On the one hand, [he] is telling us, wait a second, the Norse were here 500 years before Christopher Columbus ever entered the Western Hemisphere. But he's also saying that for thousands of years prior to that, the Inuit people, the indigenous people, were resident on this continent.”

In his sculptures, Ruben weaves this cultural narrative through intricately carved images and symbolic materials. In the sister sculptures North Atlantic Saga (2011) and Inuvialuit: Inuit Way of Life (2011), we see imagery of traditional Norse life contrasted with the shamans and mythology of the Inuvialuit. Yet these sculptures are linked through their medium: both are carved from narwhal tusks, which were prized by the Norse and the Inuit for their ivory. In Memories: An Ancient Past (2010), drum dancers, shamans, and spirit animals are carved into a bowhead whale skull, signaling the importance of whaling for both peoples.

Into the Sunset by Abraham Anghik Ruben (Inuvialuit, b. 1951). Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, 1999. Brazilian soapstone, antler. 31.7 x 89 x 22 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, gift of Samuel and Esther Sarick. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

But while Ruben’s sculptures might use traditional imagery and materials, they also shed light on how much has changed within Inuit culture. The influx of European whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries all but decimated indigenous Arctic peoples through disease. As Inuit were hired to man European whaling ships, their own hunting seasons were interrupted, and subsistence living was gradually replaced by commerce. In the 20th century, many Native Canadian children, Ruben included, were sent to residential, or boarding, schools operated by the government. There they grew up without their families, their language, and their cultural traditions, and the bond with the past was further severed.

Arctic Journeys/Ancient Memories deals with many of these modern issues. In Breaking Tradition (1999), Ruben depicts a traditional Inuit boat, or umiak, being split apart by Sedna, the guardian of sea animals. The crew, represented by spirit animals, tumbles overboard, signaling the loss of spiritual customs. In Arctic Apocalypse (2009), Inuit and Norse figures are shown huddled together on a shrinking piece of ice, a nod to the growing dangers of climate change.

Throughout these cultural shifts, Engelstad noted that art has been a beneficial force for the Inuit. Financially, selling artwork has provided a source of income that has become necessary to purchase imported food, imported clothing, gasoline for power boats, guns, ammunition, etc. But perhaps more importantly, art has allowed the Inuvialuit to recapture their history. “Through the drawings, through the prints, through the sculpture, Inuit artists were able to recount their history, and preserve that history,” said Engelstad. “Those stories are recounted in the artwork---personal events, differences in hunting techniques---that sort of thing.”

Between cultural erosion, alcoholism, poverty, and the legacy of residential schools, where abuse was widespread, this history has at times been difficult to come to terms with. But as Engelstad explained, art is often an ideal vehicle for expressing that which might normally seem too difficult to express. “Sometimes you can talk about things that you can't talk about publicly, but you can discuss it through [art],” she said. She referred to graphic artist Annie Pootogook, a Canadian Inuit whose work was recently featured at the NMAI’s New York campus. Engelstad noted that, “things like alcoholism and domestic abuse [are dealt] with in her drawings. She may not be up on a soapbox talking about it, but by putting it in her drawings, it becomes an important issue for the community.”

Similarly, Arctic Journeys, Ancient Memories draws attention to issues that might not typically be part of the usual dialogue. From a little-known period of cultural interaction to climate change and painful breaks with tradition, Ruben’s sculptures give voice to a story that has been in need of telling.

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