Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration
One may well wonder why the latest exhibit at the Japanese Canadian National Museum features Inuit prints—surely the quintessential Canadian art form.
A talk with Beth Carter, Director/Curator of the JCNM, reveals the fascinating story of the impact of Japanese print-making on Inuit artists in the late fifties and early sixties. The 1950s was a time of great transition and upheaval for the Inuit. People were moving away from subsistence life in camps, where they hunted for food and also trapped furs. Many moved into permanent communities, where they had access to schools, supplies and medical services. Given the lack of ready-made jobs in the far north, crafts and art production became an important source of income for many Inuit – and so the government set up workshops and provided staff to assist with training.
Canadian artist James Houston was assigned to work in Cape Dorset, on southern Baffin Island, where they started with stone and ivory sculpture, some basketry, and sewn handicrafts. Houston and the local artists were also experimenting with graphic arts and printmaking. However, Houston had very little training in printmaking techniques, and realized he needed to improve his skills.
Japanese ukiyo-e (wood-block printmaking) had long been a source of inspiration for contemporary artists in Europe and around the world. Houston was also impressed with the success and accomplishments of Japanese printmakers in the international art circuit in the post-war period.
Using his holiday time in the fall of 1958, Houston travelled to Japan to study printmaking with renowned artist Un’ichi Hiratsuka. He also was introduced to many other influential artists, experimented with the use of washi paper, and witnessed Japan’s flourishing mingei (folk arts) movement. Upon his return to the Arctic, Houston shared his knowledge — and his collection of Japanese prints — with the fledgling printmakers of Cape Dorset. The Inuit artists were greatly inspired, and the results are plain for all to see – a rich new tradition of print-making that have been woven into the cultural identity of Canada. The current exhibit includes many of these rare and exquisite prints, and shares the remarkable story of these artistic encounters and their extraordinary results.
The exhibit continues at the JCNM until December 3rd and is on loan from the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. Inuit Prints and was curated by Dr. Norman Vorano, the Curator of Contemporary Inuit Art. He was assisted by Asato Ikeda, a PhD candidate in Art History at UBC, Dr. Ming Tiampo, Associate Professor of Art History at Carleton University in Ottawa and Kananginak Pootoogook, one of Cape Dorset’s most senior and respected artists. The exhibit is accompanied by a beautiful publication, which is available in the JCNM shop.
On the 2nd Level of the Centre another connection between Inuit and Japanese art is revealed in a complementary exhibit of artwork by Taiga Chiba. Taiga, a Japanese-born artist who has lived and worked on and off in Vancouver for many years, shares his experiences and the art he produced while teaching in Nunavut in 1995, 1996 and 2010.
The JCNM thanks the Deux Mille Foundation for their generous support.