Abraham Anghik Ruben at Rockwell Museum – Review

Last week, at Rockwell Museum, I had the privilege of meeting sculptor Abraham Anghik Ruben. In fact, I paid for the privilege, and was glad I did.
I discover that Mr. Ruben and I first saw the light of day in the same month, 22 days apart – he in western Canada’s Arctic expanse, I under the sea wind in Rhode Island. He was born into a society largely preliterate, but quickly being brutalized (even more than it had been) in a dream of helpfulness. My life was among feverishly literate people, but with rages and alcoholism, and early hearing loss, all deep enough to leave permanent scars. And, it seems, Mr. Ruben and I reveled in nature, and both devoured stories.
In each case, many of the stories were family based, and community based. In my home we spent many late late nights around the dining table with family and friends, telling the tales of those who’d gone before and often asking “Now who is he (or she)?” – meaning, who’s he related to? No one expected people to behave just like their families, or even anything like their families. But no one seem properly located in space until we knew who and where he came from.
Awash in nature and stories and family and grievously unkind kindnesses, we both became storytellers. Abraham Ruben tells stories in metal and stone, and you can see them at the Rockwell.
He considers himself a contemporary artist who happens to be Inuvialuit, and his work clearly draws upon the traditional work of the Arctic. The first glance signals that, but the second look reveals that it’s far, far more. This is indeed 21st-century art springing from, and still rooted in, traditional forms.
The exhibit is entitled “The World of Man, Animals, and Spirit.” It’s an expression of becoming, and of transforming. Within any given sculpture, transformation often takes place physically. In the falcon’s wing, human forms appear, busy about their earth-bound lives. Thor becomes a bear becomes a falcon. In the folds of a robe, falcon and fish appear.
But transformation takes place at a higher level, too. Amergin’s Prayer: The Poem of Eire depicts an Irish Brehon of the transitional time from druidry to Christianity. The holy man is going into (or coming from?) the wilderness where he encounters the mysteries. His staff and his book speak to the counsel he gives, but his face shows the exhausting agony of his experience, and his body has wide spaces for the wind of the spirit to blow through.
Kublualak: The Right of Passage also pictures the agony of transformation, as Kublualak sprawls in the talons of a gigantic falcon. Following the Spanish influenza of 1918 the Inuvialuit numbered just 156 souls, and Kublualak sought guidance in solitude, of which the Arctic abounds. The falcon appeared to him in a storm to guide him in the shaman’s way, but only on condition that the gift be used for the people. Kublualak was in fact instrumental in their surviving as Inuvialuits.
Shaman With Rune Sticks interprets the shape-shifting Norse god Odin as shaman and storyteller. Fatigue is incised in his face, and on his back he bears his own fated (and fatal) battle with the Fenriswolf, with which the world will end.
How did Odin wander in? As he started working with the calamity of global heating, Mr. Ruben increasingly has taken a circumpolar view, recognizing that the Vikings are also children of the north. Those with long memories will recall Dr. Magnus Agustsson’s 1999 sculpture exhibit, “The Viking Vision,” at Curtiss Museum, followed by a smaller show at Cornell, and exhibitions in Washington and Reykjavik. Dr. Agustsson drew on the myths and sagas recited and sung beside the fire, and there are echoes across the exhibits. In The Beginning, Mr. Anghik imagines a Viking discovering a harpoon and recognizing… perhaps with despair.. that they are not alone in this hostile New World. The Viking Vinlanders didn’t last, and the Viking Greenlanders never learned to adapt. The Beginning, of course, is paired with The End, in which an Inuit family, moving into now-empty spaces, broods over an abandoned helmet of the long-gone Norse.
Ruben Anghik’s Vision to me is this show’s pre-eminent piece. The artist’s grandfather, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. He speaks and he gestures, as he did when the artist, at five years of age, was called with other family members to witness the old man’s will shortly before his passing. Ruben Anghik spoke of the years to come, and of ways the people would need to adapt in order to survive. The duotone soapstone suggests his imminent passing, but his expression, as he sees what lies ahead, seems to me an expression of pleased surprise. Continuity – becoming – transformation – change – family – the people – the farthest North – Anghik’s Vision gathers all the threads.
(“Man, Animals, and Spirits” is one of an exciting pair of exhibits just opened at the Rockwell. While Mr. Anghik’s work is clearly contemporary, “Illustration and Imagination” is a stunning collection of illustration paintings, some nearly a century old, by W.H.D. Koerner. When I first encountered Mr. Anghik he was by himself, taking in the Koerner paintings while muttering, “Wonderful, wonderful.” He was absolutely right, and we’ll look at THAT exhibit next week.)