Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration, Early Printmaking in the Canadian Arctic

Kenojuak Ashevak, The Enchanted Owl, 1960. Stonecut by Iyola Kingwatsiak. Printed by Eegyudluk Pootoogook, Canadian Museum of Civilization, © Dorset Fine Arts.

Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration is a groundbreaking inquiry into Japanese influences in the early years of the Cape Dorset print studio. Some fifty years ago James Houston introduced this small community on South Baffin Island to printmaking as a potential source of income. A few of these new prints produced in the community’s one-room craft shop were put on sale in December 1958 at the Hudson’s Bay Company store in Winnipeg with great success and positive reaction. To learn more about printmaking himself, Houston travelled to Japan in 1959 to study woodcut printmaking with one of the world’s leading masters, Un’ichi Hiratsuka, and others. The remarkable story of that cross-cultural artistic encounter and its extraordinary results are shown in this exhibition in three main sections.

The first section, A Leap into the Unknown: 1957-1958, is a look at Inuit printmaking in the short period before Japanese influence. One of the highlights is Three Caribou, dated November 30, 1957, printed by Kananginak Pootoogook using a design by Niviaqsi. It is one of the first fine art prints from the Cape Dorset print studio. The second section, Lessons with a Japanese Master: 1958-1959, highlights Houston’s stay in Japan when he apprenticed primarily with Japanese master, Un’ichi Hiratsuka.  It includes drawings he created in ink and watercolor, as well as several of the prints he made while learning about Japan’s printmaking traditions. Hiratsuka remembered James Houston’s first color print, Kneeling Ainu Priest as “a lively piece in black, dense gray, and brown”. 

The third section, Japanese Inspiration: 1959-1963, is the main focus of the exhibition. It shows early Inuit prints in juxtaposition with Japanese prints brought to Cape Dorset by Houston in 1959, revealing their similarities and differences. Lukta Qiatsuk’s more technically sophisticated black-and-white stonecut print Owl is clearly inspired by Hiratsuka’s Stone image of Buddha at Usuki. Among the works on view in this section are rare Inuit stonecut rubbings and color stencils inspired (influenced) by the Japanese kappazuri techniques which involved the use of a dye-resistant rice paste and intricately cut stencils to add freely flowing colours and negative floating spaces on the prints. There is no evidence that Houston attempted kappazuri with the artists in Cape Dorset. Instead the Cape Dorset printmakers were more open to the new range of coloring possibilities as seen on Japanese prints. Astonishing examples among other works are Ipeelee’s Owl, Fox and Hare Legend clearly owing a debt to Kichieon Okamura’s Iyon Nokka and the Polar Bear and Cub on Ice designed by Niviasi and printed by Iyola Kingwatsiak or Kananginak Pootoogook in 1959.

The exhibition also features a display of a stonecut print block and early printmaking tools that Cape Dorset artists created and used in the late 1950s, modeling them after the Japanese tools Houston introduced into the community.

Also on view in the exhibition, the documentary film Threads That Connect Us: Washimakers Meet Cape Dorset Artists, puts a contemporary spin on the printmaking story. Filmed in 2002, it follows a group of traditional Japanese washi papermakers as they travel to Cape Dorset to meet the Inuit artists who continue to use their handmade paper-half a century after the first washi paper was brought by Houston to Cape Dorset.

Inuit Prints, Japanese Inspiration is a travelling exhibition produced by the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It is curated by Dr. Norman Vorano and accompanied by illustrated catalogues in English and French.

Niviasi, Three Caribou, 1957

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