Japan’s Influence on Inuit Printmakers: The Untold Story

Lukta Qiatsuk, Owl (1959), stonecut. © CMH. Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

Inuit prints have become an iconic part of Canadian art. Yet few know the origins of the craft, or the role played by an artistic tradition from the other side of the world.

Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration explores the meeting of two graphic arts traditions in Canada’s Far North during the 1950s and 1960s. At the centre of it all is the late Canadian artist and government employee James Houston, who introduced printmaking to Cape Dorset in 1958. Following a course of study with Japanese printmakers, Houston brought back the techniques he learned, and shared them with Inuit artists.

The Canadian Museum of History decided to explore this cultural cross-pollination, producing a travelling exhibition that opened in 2011 at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. Following a three-year tour, Inuit Prints makes its final stop this winter at the Musée des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke.

In a recent interview with NGC Magazine, Alan Elder — Manager, First Peoples and Early Canada, at the Canadian Museum of History — commented on the significance of this little-known story.

“To such a great extent,” he says, “Inuit prints are an important part of Canadian cultural identity. Inuit printmaking has been represented in everything from postage stamps to greeting cards. But I don’t think that previously there had been any investigation about its beginnings in Canada. The curators on this exhibition were really interested in looking at this untold story.”

Un’ichi Hiratsuka, Stone Image of Buddha at Usuki (c. 1940), woodcut print. © CMH. Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

Thinking that Japanese printmaking traditions might align well with Inuit art, Houston studied woodcut technique in Japan over a three-month period. Under the tutelage of printmaker Un’ichi Hiratsuka, Houston learned Japanese techniques which — along with samples by Japanese masters such as Hiratsuka, Shiko Munakata, and Kichiemon Okamurama — he took back to Cape Dorset.

The Inuit had their own well-established graphic arts tradition, using imagery to record the natural world, and to tell mythological or historical stories. Sealskin clothing, for example, often featured motifs that were readily transferable to printmaking. But replicating these images, as printmaking techniques allowed, was a concept introduced by Houston.

Niviasi (Niviaksiak) and printed by Iyola Kingwatsiak or Kananginak Pootoogook, Polar Bear and Cub (1959), stencil. © CMH. Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

The exhibition includes works by well-known Inuit artists such as Kananginak Pootoogook, Lukta Qiatsuk, and Kenojuak Ashevak, all of whom are represented in the National Gallery of Canada collection. Juxtaposing Inuit and Japanese works, the exhibition explores similarities and differences in style, technique and subject matter between two iconic artistic traditions.

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was renewed interest worldwide in national identity and folk customs — an interest reflected in the storylines of Inuit prints of the time. Artists were also learning from one another. Stenciling, for example, became common among Cape Dorset artists, inspired, in large part, by the examples Houston brought back from Japan.

Although Houston had focused his studies on Japanese woodcut, wood is a relatively rare commodity in the Far North. Some tools and materials were accordingly altered, based on what could be easily found in Cape Dorset. Linoleum floor tiles and stone were often used instead of woodcut blocks, and printmaking barens were made out of materials such as sealskin.

Kichiemon Okamura, Iyon Nokka (1958), kappazuri stencil. © CMH. Photo: Marie-Louise Deruaz

“It’s not that there was an imposition of a completely new way of working. It was really an adaptation of artistic traditions, using techniques that had been brought in from outside,” says Elder. “And, even today, there is a continuing influence back and forth between Japan and the Canadian North.”

As Catherine Duperron, Interim Curator at the Musée des beaux-arts de Sherbrooke, noted in an interview with NGC Magazine, this is the first time her museum has shown Inuit or First Nations art. “This exhibition is interesting because it speaks about intercultural relationships,” she says. “It’s interesting for us to see that. It’s not just the production of this art, but it’s also the influence of another type of art from somewhere else in the world.”

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