The skylight area of the Winnipeg Art Gallery is currently home to eight stunning pieces by Inuit sculptor Abraham Anghik Ruben all made from Brazilian soapstone.
Many of the Ruben sculptures depict Inuit legends and stories. On his website Ruben writes: “I have chosen to be a story teller for my people through the medium of sculpture. . . . I no longer speak my mother tongue, yet I need to do my part in carrying on the stories and cultural myths, legends and spiritual legacy of our people.” With his art Ruben is carrying on in the tradition of his mother Bertha Thrasher who he describes as a story teller and a keeper of traditions.
The story of Sedna is told in the piece Sedna The Enchantress. Sedna was a young Inuit woman whose father put her in a boat to try to help her escape from her husband who had turned out to be someone different than she thought when she married him. When the vengeful husband tries to sink their boat the father cuts off all his daughter’s fingers and pushes her into the sea in order to save his own life. Sedna becomes a mermaid and the ends of her fingers turn into all the creatures that live in the ocean.
The story of The Raven is illustrated in three pieces in the current Ruben display. The Raven created the world from a snowball that formed on his wing. The snowball grew and grew. As Raven landed on the snowball his beak moved back to reveal a human head and his wings moved back to reveal feet and hands.
Raven formed the plants and trees from bits of clay. A pea pod plant burst open and people came out. Raven made animals from clay. One that didn’t turn out as Raven planned was a large serpent and Raven killed it to protect his human creations. He threw stars into the sky to remind human beings that he was their creator and protector.
Two contrasting pieces in the exhibit depict a shaman. In one the shaman is joyfully turning into a bird
and in the other the shaman has died and has been buried in a shallow grave.
In an interview given for a 2013 article in the Arctic Journal Ruben says both his grandparents and great grandparents were keepers of the shaman tradition. ”The shaman is an intermediary between the physical and spiritual world. But also carries on oral traditions, myths and legend,” Ruben explains.
Ruben traveled by dog team as a child with his parents hunting polar bears, caribou and beluga whales. In 1957 when he was seven years old he was sent to residential school and remained there for almost a decade. It was an experience Ruben describes as “the dark night of my soul.”
After leaving school he went to the University of Alaska and studied at the Native Art Center there. He has gone on to become one of Canada’s most successful and well-known Inuit sculptors.
His work is displayed next to that of Norvel Morriseau at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in an exhibit entitled Shaman Stories.