Asato Ikeda: the intersection of Japanese + Inuit art
An Interview with Asato Ikeda
Asato Ikeda, co-curator of Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration, is a PhD Candidate at UBC studying Japanese modern art history. I spoke with Asato by e-mail following her talk at the Japanese Canadian National Museum.
You were born in Japan—tell me a little about your family and how you ended up in Canada . . .
I was born and brought up in Togoshi Ginza, a little commercial district, in Tokyo. I lived with my parents, two younger sisters, and two dogs there. I long wanted to study abroad, but studied first at Temple University Japan, which is a Japan campus of Temple University (Philadelphia). After studying a year and half there, I transferred to the University of Victoria to get my BA, and then went to Carleton University for my MA. A better social welfare system, cheaper tuition, and gun-less society made me go to Canada, not the US.
Your dissertation is about Japanese paintings during the Fifteen-Year War and the concept of Japanese fascism. You’re also co-editing an anthology on war art in Japan and its Empire. Where did your interest in this field come from?
My grandfather is almost obsessed with the history of World War II. He took me to places like Yasukuni Shrine and Kamikaze museum in Kagoshima. It wasn’t until I went to a high school called Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School, where I made many zainichi-Korean friends, that I became interested in an alternative history about Japan and the war. I wanted to know more about Japan’s experience as a victimizer not just as a victim (of atomic bombs, for example).
Although much of your work has centred around Japanese wartime art, for this exhibit you turned your focus to the impact that Japanese print-making had on Inuit art. How did this side-project come about?
This project actually came about between the other two curators, my MA supervisor Ming Tiampo (Associate Professor at Carleton University) and Norman Vorano (curator of contemporary Inuit art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization). They invited me to the project and gave me the precious experience of developing an exhibition from scratch. I learned a great deal through this project.
You’ve studied Japanese (and Inuit) art extensively – do you make art yourself?
Not really, but I used to practice calligraphy.
I found your talk at the Nikkei Centre fascinating, and surprising. Like many others, I assumed that Inuit print-making was an indigenous tradition that went back for many years. Was there anything that surprised you as you put together this exhibition?
I had no idea that there was a connection between Inuit and Japanese prints. This is not about the content of the exhibition per se, but the other thing is what Norman Vorano does in the exhibition catalogue essay: that, with a considerable amount of research, an art historian can trace and reconstruct somebody else’s trip that took place more than sixty years ago. That was pretty surprising.
The print-making techniques that James Houston brought back from Japan clearly had a major impact on Inuit printmaking in-as-far as they had much better control of their reproductions. What about stylistically and aesthetically? Did the exposure to the Japanese prints themselves have an impact on the art that the Inuit began creating?
In addition to the technical aspect of print making, the Inuit prints were very much influenced by Japanese prints stylistically and aesthetically. The exclusive use of black and white, for example, was learned from Hiratsuka Un’ichi, Houston’s teacher. The Inuit artists also learned expressive, rather than naturalistic, use of colour application from Japanese prints. I must say however that Inuit and Japanese traditional art share many things in common to begin with, such as abstraction and two-dimensionality, which might have made it easier for the Inuit artists to learn from Japanese prints. In addition to what Houston learned in Japan, the Inuit artists had access to prints by such artists as Okamura Kichiemon and Munakata Shiko, which Houston brought to Cape Dorset. They learned from these prints too.
It’s interesting that the bridge between the Inuit and the Japanese was a Canadian artist with a connection to neither culture. How is he regarded in the far north?
Houston is THE most important figure when it comes to Inuit art, and as such he is regarded highly in the far north. As you say, it is interesting that James Houston didn’t have either cultural background, but given that abstract, expressive qualities of both Inuit and Japanese art fit the aesthetic taste of Western modernism, it isn’t too surprising that he was interested in non-Western art. Also, Japanese culture, including tea ceremony, flower arrangement, ceramics, and especially Zen Buddhism, was huge in North America in the 1950s and 1960s.
How was the exhibit received in Japan? Like here in Canada, I don’t imagine that many people knew of the connection between the two cultures.
I am sure that the link between Japanese and Inuit prints came as a surprise to many people. Although the exhibition took place at a rather “unusual” place (it was shown at the Canadian Embassy of Japan), it was well received. The two Inuit artists who came to Japan received some media attention, especially when they visited washi makers in Kochi, Shikoku.
You travelled to Japan with two Inuit artists – what was that experience like for you? What did the two artists think of Japan?
I enjoyed the experience very much. It was my first time meeting Inuit people. Norman, Ming, and I took them to skyscrapers in Shinjuku, had wonderful tofu lunch, and did shopping at Tokyu Hands. The artists, Qiatsuq Niviaqsi and Cee Pootoogook, repeatedly commented that Japanese and Inuit people look alike so much that they feel at home. The artists were shy and quiet at first, but became talkative toward the end of their stay. That sort of behaviour made me also think that Inuit and Japanese people might be similar, though I don’t mean to generalize.
Where has this exhibit been shown and are there plans to tour it elsewhere?
The exhibition started in the Canadian Embassy of Japan at the beginning of this year in Tokyo, and was already shown at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC this summer. I am not sure where exactly this would go next, but I truly hope that this exhibition will go to many venues as possible, not only in Japan and Canada, but also in other countries.
You’re graduating next year – what are your plans once you’ve left school?
This is a very good question. I am currently working on applying to job and postdoctoral positions. Hopefully, I will be working at university or museum next year. I would very much like to stay in Canada, Vancouver in particular, but that doesn’t seem like a possibility. But who knows, I might end up doing something else in order to stay in this city!