BY PAUL GESSELL
Most art scholars know that Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and other famous 19th century European artists were influenced by Japanese art. Fewer scholars know of the links between Inuit and Japanese art. A splendid new exhibition at the Carleton University Art Gallery explores those surprising links.
The original idea for the exhibition, Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration, came from Carleton’s Miang Tiampo, an associate professor of art history, specializing in Japanese art. Tiampo took her idea to what was then called the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The museum, with the help of Tiampo and one of her students at the time, Asato Ikeda, organized the exhibition and, in 2011, sent it to Japan for a showing. A Canadian tour followed, culminating in the newly opened show at Carleton.
The Inuit-Japanese connection was fostered by James Houston, an artist and federal bureaucrat working during the 1950s in the Cape Dorset area in what is now Nunavut. Houston is considered the father of modern Inuit art for his efforts to link Inuit artists with markets in southern Canada and abroad.
In 1958, Houston went to Japan for three months to study printmaking so he could help develop a printmaking industry in Cape Dorset. Houston returned to the Canadian North with new skills and a suitcase full of Japanese prints and printmaking tools.
Inuit printmaking was never the same. The Arctic artists learned better how to create stark black-and-white prints and to highlight so-called negative space — the uncoloured parts. They adapted Japanese tools: Japanese wooden chisel handles were replaced by caribou antler; horsehair brushes became polar bear bristle brushes. Inuit artists even began “signing” their work with a personalized seal akin to those used in Japan.
The Carleton exhibition includes examples of these initial Japanese-inspired works, alongside some Japanese prints of the same era. The similarities in style and content are striking. Call it early globalization.
The first Inuit printmakers to benefit from Japanese inspiration were Osuitok Ipeelee, Iyola Kingwatsiak, Eegyvudluk Pootoogook, Kananginak Pootoogook, and Lukta Qiatsuk. All have since died. Examples of their works from 1959 are in the exhibition.
Back in 2011, the Canadian Museum of Civilization loudly trumpeted the exhibition as the museum’s handiwork. Norman Vorano, then the museum’s head of Inuit art, was listed as the leading scholar in the exhibition catalogue. A press conference was held at the museum to unveil the catalogue. But there was no exhibition of the actual prints at the museum or elsewhere in the national capital.
So, why didn’t the museum stage an exhibition of these prints? Some museum officials say it was more a Carleton project than a museum project. But in 2011, it was touted as mainly a museum project. That, of course, was before the Museum of Civilization became the Canadian Museum of History with a mandate that has caused tremendous confusion.
The museum claims it is still interested in acquiring and exhibiting indigenous art, although there are signals that leave a different impression. The head of First Nations art, Lee-Ann Martin, retired last Christmas and the head of Inuit art, Norman Vorano, left earlier this year for a job at Queen’s University. Neither has been replaced. The two jobs are to be rolled into one and a curator hired at some time in the future.
Behind the scenes, the museum has debated whether it should be involved in Aboriginal art at all. Indigenous art used to be considered handicraft, rather than fine art. So, indigenous art was exhibited in ethno-cultural institutions rather than fine art museums.
However, the National Gallery and other major art institutions are increasingly treating indigenous art as fine art. So, should the Canadian Museum of History continue to acquire and exhibit Aboriginal art?
Museum officials maintain they have an abiding interest in Aboriginal art. If that is, indeed, the case, maybe that museum could have found the space to display an Inuit art exhibition it created three years ago.
Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration, curated by Norman Vorano, Ming Tiampo, and Asato Ikeda, produced by the Canadian Museum of History, on at the Carleton University Art Gallery until Dec. 14, 2014