Anguta pushes his daughter over the kayak and into the water. Abraham Anghik Ruben’s characteristically soft voice barely rises above the chatter of the house party and the whir of the stove fan. I lean forward to hear more from one of Canada’s foremost contemporary sculptors. Sedna reaches up and grasps the edge of the kayak to pull herself up but Anguta cuts her fingers off and she sinks to the bottom of the sea.
We’re standing in the kitchen of our mutual friend, Cosimo Stifani, in Toronto’s Weston neighbourhood. Cosimo is hosting the party in Abraham’s honour. The artist opens the oven door and checks on dinner. It’s roast deer, his deer. He hunted it in British Colombia where he lives and works and raises goats on Salt Spring Island.
Cosimo directs the traffic in the kitchen where party guests are drawn to the aroma of the roasting deer, the percolating pot of tomato sauce and the simmering pan of mushrooms. There’s a constant flow of people looking for serving spoons for their homemade contributions to the dinner.
Sedna is an Inuk goddess and an important figure in Abraham’s work. I recognize the angry goddess trope and I’m curious to hear the end of the creation myth. We’ve inched our way into a corner of Cosimo’s kitchen, away from the hustle and bustle. In the Arctic underworld, Sedna’s fingers turn into seals – the lifeblood of the Innu. She torments hunters who must placate her if they hope to be successful in the hunt.
The 65 year-old artist visits Toronto often and I’ve met up with him a number of times. Abraham is represented by the Kipling Gallery run by Rocco Pannese and Lou Ruffolo, two affable gallery owners who make their home north of Highway 7.
I look at the spread on the dining room table – a variety of Italian dishes – grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, soppressata sausage, lasagna and tiramisù, with the roast deer at its centre. How did this renowned Innu sculptor hook up with a Woodbridge art gallery and its Italian-Canadian owners?
Abraham works with different media. He chisels big stone into fluid, multidimensional scenes, incorporating images and themes from diverse northern cultures, including Viking and Norse. His sculptures are packed with people, animals and symbols forming elegant tableaux. Other sculptures show lone figures, with quiet compelling faces. He uses traditional whalebone and narwal tusk and soapstone from British Columbia, Oregon, Brazil and South Africa; alabaster from Utah, Portugual and Italy, and Italian Carrara marble. Some of his pieces weigh several tons.
Click on any image to enlarge
If you could capture a shaman’s dream, it might look like one of his sculptures. His great-grandparents, Apakark and Kagun, were a husband and wife team, not unusual for the Innu, of practicing shamans from the Bering Sea tradition. After the end of commercial whaling, Abraham’s people settled in the Paulatuk area. Early on, his family camped together with other nomadic families and trapped and hunted caribou, moose, muskox and sea mammals.
For the Innu, the loss of a child was also the loss of reincarnated family members. At the age of eight, the government took Abraham and his younger brother from their family. Abraham lived in residential schools until 1970 when on a tour of the University of Alaska he ‘wandered off’ and peeked through a small window of a classroom door in the fine arts building. He saw students at work, making art. “I knew at that moment that this was where I wanted to be,” he says.
Abraham answers questions about his life with detailed stories shaped by thoughtful pauses. I get the impression that he must have learned something about appeasing Sedna during his journey from residential schools to the art department at the university in Fairbanks. He studied under the celebrated Ron Senungetuk, who founded and directed the University of Alaska’s Native Arts Centre from 1965 to 1986, and went on to serve as the head of the Fine Arts Department until his retirement. Senungetuk became a good friend as well as an inspirational teacher.
Open to dreams
Abraham’s connection to Toronto goes back to 1976. Not with a visit, but with a dream where he meets Jack Pollock of the Pollock Gallery and his partner Eva Quan. Abraham was in Hobbema, Alberta, for a Native American festival where he met a Navaho medicine man and several Cree medicine men. “We went through sweat lodge ceremonies,” he recounts.
“One night I had a dream. I’m in a city getting introduced to a gallery owner, a Chinese woman, who turned out to be Eva Quan of the Jack Pollock Gallery. In the course of the dream she tells me she has an elderly friend who would like to talk to me someplace quiet. An elderly man comes in dressed in a pale blue/green suit, glasses and salt and pepper hair. A rugged, solid gentleman. He looked like someone you did not want to cross paths with. We walk up to a platform on top of a ravine. My legs go wobbly. I could barely stand. I was ready to collapse. He turns around and looks at me and says, ‘In dreams all things are possible.’ When he says that, the lights go out. Everything turns dark. I wake up the next morning. I have no memory of the dream. Then, in March of 1977, I get an invitation to go to Toronto.”
Abraham goes on to recount how a year later, while he and Eva Quan go through his work for an exhibit, she says she has an elderly friend she would like him to meet. Fabian Burback was the head of the Toronto chapter of Eckankar, a modern belief system that connects to the divine through sound and light. Eva Quan was a member of the group and she also introduced Norval Morrisseau to Burback’s teachings.
“Around 2:30 in the afternoon, an elderly gentleman dressed in a blue/grey suit walks in and says it’s noisy here let’s go someplace quiet,” Abraham continues. “Then as we were walking, buildings and things start shifting around. I’m entering into shaky ground. We come to a platform and look down into a ravine. It’s the Don Valley. It’s a nice sunny day. I’m near collapse he turns to me and says, ‘In dreams all things are possible.’ That is the start of my journey to Toronto.
Eckankar’s way of connecting to past lives and dreams has a particular appeal for shaman-based practices. “Some people regard Burback as a shaman but his business is the soul, and all its facets, as expressions of the human condition,” Abraham adds. “He’s an East-Prussian Canadian who happens to be a shaman. He also becomes a friend and teacher. My meeting with Fabian coincides with my interest in my cultural background, maturing as an individual and having to deal with all my demons in my own way.”
Until 1982, Abraham exhibited regularly. Then, he moved out west and focused his work and life in British Columbia, making fewer and fewer trips to Toronto.
“By the way,” he insists, “When I first came to Toronto in 1977, although I had a strong interest in my cultural background and shamanism, I was a raging alcoholic with brief intervals of sobriety. Mostly, it was hard living, hard work and doing a lot of damage to myself.”
He hit the wall, as he describes it, for the last time in 1988 when his son turned one. “I gained sobriety. I have tried to live my life as a way to honour my parents and the elderly people I’ve come across and who have become friends and teachers.”
Woodbrige Ontario and Paulatuk Northwest Territories meet over an espresso
“In 2008, the same week I get an invitation to go down to the Smithsonian in Washington, I get a phone call from Lou Ruffolo and Rocco Pannese. We decide on a gentlemen’s agreement to see how things can work out. If we could develop trust then we would have the means for a long-term relationship. They’ll describe in more colourful language the first contact.” Lou Ruffolo picks up the story.
“A collector, whose wife was a teacher in the area, came in, snooping around, and asked if we wanted something on consignment,” Lou explains. “He had a piece by Abraham and he wanted $30,000 for it. The piece was so big the gallery had to hire four guys to bring it in. We had never sold anything for that much. We thought it could take a year or two. He said not to worry, it would sell quickly.” It took two weeks.
It took months to get in touch with Abraham who did not reply to the gallery’s emails and cross-country phone messages.
“We wanted to buy four sculptures but he didn’t believe me,” Lou explains. He finally agreed to meet the Woodbridge art dealers on a side trip from the Smithsonian where he was headed to repair one of his grandfather’s wooden masks. He too was a sculptor.
“He flew out to Toronto to meet us,” recounts Lou. “I went to pick him up at the airport. No other dealer had ever picked him up before. We got to the gallery, a converted bungalow which looks like a regular house on the outside, and we went in through the side door. We had an espresso machine, and made him a coffee.” Abraham was skeptical. Laughing, Lou remembers the conversation:
Lou: We want to represent you exclusively. We will buy everything you do.
Abraham: Are you two guys mobsters?
Lou: No, no, no, we’re art dealers.
Abraham: I’ve never heard of you guys.
Lou grew up in the Davenport West neighbourhood and jokes about moving up from the then rough neighbourhood to the Jane/Finch corridor. He’s an entertaining storyteller with an easy-going manner, straightforward and charming. Today he lives in Nobleton.
Rocco was born in the Puglia region in Southern Italy and came to Canada in 1956. His family settled at Crawford and College, and later moved to Rogers Road and Caledonia. “From there we moved to Keele and Wilson in North York. Like most Italian immigrants we kept moving north,” Rocco explains.
Rocco was a student of Selwyn Dewdney, the author and art therapist who was instrumental in protecting the pictograms at Petroglyphs Park. He was in the Ontario College of Art class that went up to the park with Dewdney to chalk in the glyphs so that they could be photographed. Rocco’s early exposure to Indigenous art shaped his life-long commitment to it. “I spent a year compiling Dewdney’s notes. It spurred my interest more and more and I’ve been involved with this most of my life,” Rocco adds.
In 1987, Rocco was the first curator of the Joseph D. Carrier Art Gallery at the Columbus Centre, a building, as the name suggests, full of Italian pride and known for its popular gym and exercise centre, and the excellent after work-out stop, the Caffé Cinquecento.
Rocco developed an arrangement with what was then known as the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs to mount a yearly exhibit of works from their collection, representing different Native groups. I had noticed these exhibits at the time and was very impressed that the Columbus Centre was making an effort to show Native work. “So you’re the guy who did that,” I interject. “I’m the guy, but unfortunately, it didn’t continue.”
These two guys seemed too good to be true. Unconvinced, but urged on by his brother David, who had met Rocco on a project for the McMichael Gallery, Abraham agreed to do a show. If it worked out, he would consider signing. There were four big pieces priced at $80,000 each and a number of smaller pieces ranging up to $25,000. “Four or five months later, we picked him up at the airport again, for the opening.” Lou continues, “There were red stickers on 80 percent of the show. So now he’s thinking this is a joke or a scam and he asks, ‘Are you sure these are all sold?’ We reassured him, ‘You will meet all the people who bought a piece; they want to meet you.’ ‘Where’s that contract,’ he said. This is their ninth year together, and the gallery has sold 350 of his works.
“We’ve never had an argument,” Lou says about working with Abraham. That’s saying a lot. “I’ve had to throw some artists out because of serious bad karma.” Rocco and Lou have been together, in the art world, for 25 years, selling prints and then original artwork, and promoting artists.
They opened the Kipling Gallery 12 years ago and they represent about 12 artists now. Soon they’ll be moving to a big warehouse space in Woodbridge with a 3,500 square foot showroom.
Abraham visits three to four times a year. He lives on ten acres and typically works on five to ten pieces at a time. One work in progress weighs four tons and is a limestone piece representing a mother bear and two cubs.
Alla prossima, Abraham! Until next time…
– Elizabeth Cinello
Images of Abraham Anghik Ruben’s work courtesy Kipling Gallery
This article is part of our issue Breaking Dormancy.
I loved reading this article. It reminds me of some of the stories that I heard at Gallery Phillip, in the old Don Mills Centre. Beginning in 1976, Phillip Gevik began nurturing the careers of many indigenous artists, long before anyone else took any interest. Now located in Yorkville, Gallery Gevik and Gallery Phillip continue to promote the best of Canadian art. Interestingly, Manasie Akpaliapik also has a long-standing relationship with a thoughtful Toronto-based representative.
One of the strengths of the artistic community is its ability to recognise the talents of others. Another is to ignore artificial boundaries.
The article is beautifully composed, Elizabeth.