Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Stone Spirits Of Abraham Anghik Ruben

Kipling Gallery
7938 Kipling Avenue
Woodbridge, ON

Review by Julie Hinton Walker

Shaman's Transformation
Brazilian soapstone
67.3 x 29 x 26 cm

Enough time had passed. There was nothing left except to let more time pass. The elder chose to leave.
     Darkness was all around. The others lay sleeping as she dressed and slipped past to the outer room. She put her boots on and left her mittens and good parka behind. This summer coat would do. In the frigid air, she would only need protection enough to get her a safe distance from the camp. Her family would put to good use her warmest clothing; better that they be left behind. The polar bear teeth she wore on a leather string around her neck was the last piece she removed. Each tooth was carved in honour of those who had walked this path before. She laid it on the table by the door to be found. One more tooth would be carved with her story. This necklace would be worn by her daughter now ...
     A small boy knelt by the pond near his home. He saw himself. He had seen himself before, but this time he became aware. This attentiveness opened his mind. This young boy saw wonders newer and bigger than the loving world of his mother's. And, this new world offered an edge he had never encountered before. Harshness and cruelty cut effortlessly through the beauty he had once trusted. Awareness came at a price.
     As this young boy grew to be a man, it was the cruelty that he could not easily come to terms with. Canadian soapstone carver Abraham Anghik Ruben lost his place in the world as a boy. He had learned the love of his family. He had learned of his family's history from his parents and their parents. But, it wasn't until cultural intervention that he found himself exposed to cruelties he could not ever have imagined. He watched as his older siblings were removed from his family and felt the pain he could see in his mother's eyes. He lived through his own experiences in residential school. He become disconnected. Meaning was lost. He had to find a way to reconnect his life as a boy to his life of the man he now lived.
     Ruben's great-grandparents were shamans. They were teachers and leaders within their community. Ruben seems to have inherited the deep understanding of a shaman. He, too, grew to become a storyteller but, unlike his ancestors, not with words. It may be that the time for oral history to be passed from generation to generation has passed; perhaps, because there are too many of us now. One voice may not be heard over the roar of many. Ruben found a way to be heard. In the presence of his work, one may sense he has been gifted stone to message with and create his art form.
     Without experience, Abraham found an immediate connection with an art school he came to visit. At once, he knew he must explore this school. The material and tools were foreign. The stone was hard and the tools sharp, but he found himself driven to understand. He began to carve. And, out of the stone, out of his imagination and curiosity, a new awareness grew; it was not outward, anymore. It was an inward awareness based on love, compassion, and respect. This mystic and attentive artist began to understand the mythology and power of Nature that had been collecting in his mind since his first moments of awareness by the pond of his youth. Ideas flowed. The ancestral stories passed down combined with his personal battles found their way to the stone in the most generous and forgiving spirit. Ruben began to understand that he is an artist at his best for having been through his hardships. He grew to carve Brazilian soapstone to bring his story to life.
     Brazilian soapstone has its own natural history and character. Ruben allows the stone to inspire him. He shares with us in his film "From The Spirit" that the stone somewhat dictates the final sculpture. He feels it has its own story to tell, and by working in tandem Ruben's stories are given further context. His practice is to open himself to the stone and keep open throughout the process, adapting his subject matter to the whim of his material. If he hits a fault and a piece breaks off, he simply carries on and reworks the figure, stylizing as he carves. Out of his method comes an ethereal quality that gives the impression of coming in and out of existence. The viewer's mind resonates as the eye darts and twists, churns and tumbles over the pieces, seeing them from all points of view at once, as in a dream. The work invites us to navigate through and in between each Nordic symbol and each Inuit person to feel the rhythm of Nature and ultimately, the rhythm of time.
     The Nordic explorers navigated the seas of their home with Ran, their marine goddess. Along the way, as they sailed into uncharted waters, they were met by Sedna, the sea goddess to the Inuit, and together the water goddesses led them safely to shore. Upon first landing, the vastness of the landscape they encountered must have felt all-consuming. It must have seemed that they had nothing to burn but ice and nothing to eat but snow. This world opened up as they met the nomads of the land. The Nordic explorers were a mystic people and felt a connection to the Inuit they met. As they came to know one another, they co-operatively honoured their earthbound gods for the land, sea, weather, and food supplies they gleaned. A seemingly inhospitable environment soon turned bountiful and a place to call home with their new friends. This cultural coming together happened long ago in a past Ruben had only heard about. With his native language trained out of him, his story telling comes to us through the chiselled transformations of soapstone.
     All the spirit gods and goddesses of Ruben's stone represent the protective forces of our planet that both help and challenge us. Our Earth is the source for everything we have. The universe, in turn, feeds our imagination. We take from the Earth. Ruben's stories ask that you take, but with reverence. We take for granted. We take more and more from finite sources. There will come a time when even the gods cannot protect us. Our home is crumbling at its foundation. We may, one day, resort back to a nomadic lifestyle where Nature dictates our actions after our control of Nature fails to provide us our guaranteed future ...
     Ruben's strength grew out of struggle. As a young man, the distractions he invited into his life merely added complication by veiling memories and numbing pain. Before it was too late, this artist realized the path he followed was not a healing path. It was time to fight back. Ruben used the harshness and cruelty he was exposed to and began to break stone. It is brutal at the onset. This sculptor taught himself to focus the destructive forces. Each new piece is an awakening, a re-birth, and the results are some of the most arresting, meaningful, and timeless stories told with such a delicate eye. His narrative, exploring the coming together of two cultures, one of a warrior mindset and the other deeply rooted within Nature, into a cooperative existence in the harshest of climates, served to also exorcise the demons out of his own head. Ruben may be asking us to take time to pause and turn; to see the past looming in our wake of destruction and our future careening toward us on uncertain wheels before it becomes too late for all of us. This artist's work shows us there is a way to trust again. We must re-connect to the beauty of our world.
     As the door opened, the air whisked by fast-freezing all in its path. Dawn broke the horizon at this very moment. The old woman left the warmth of her family behind and closed the door. Today would be a good day for a polar bear. And, tomorrow would be a good day for a bear hunt ... *
     Face your fears. Face your demons. Look the polar bear right in the eye as he acts on his own natural tendencies. There is nothing to hide from. This polar bear, this force of Nature will, in time, bring you back to where you belong. No matter the journey, we always find home.

* The story of the elder woman was told as an introduction to Abraham Anghik Ruben's sculpture.