Exhibition explores Ainu aesthetics through art past and present

March 22, 2013

By WAKATO ONISHI/ Senior Staff Writer

SAPPORO--Ainu artworks, from early traditional crafts to contemporary pieces, are on display in the first full-scale project by a museum to spotlight “Ainu art and expression.”

The Contemporary Ainu Art and Crafts special exhibition, called “Ainu Art Kaze no Kataribe,” runs through March 24 at the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art.

About 160 pieces of traditional Ainu crafts from the 19th and 20th centuries are introduced, including cotton clothes decorated with distinct spiral and spike motifs, wooden cigarette boxes, and a breathtaking array of “ikupasuy.”

Ikupasuy are prayer sticks used in Ainu libation ceremonies in which sake is offered to the gods and spirits.

The wooden sticks, about 30 centimeters long and shaped like a spatula, are decorated with abstract carvings and cross-hatching made with a small knife.

Seemingly traditional in design, the motifs have a whiff of art nouveau.

The wooden sticks show a distinctive cultural identity and universality. Many ikupasuy are carved with images of killer whales, fish, animals and boats. These are fine examples of “vibrant sculpture art,” according to Yoriko Mizuta, assistant curatorial director of the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art.

A special section dedicated to the hand-carved wood bear, the popular Hokkaido souvenir, shows that there are two separate origins of this modern product, which may not count as “traditional” art.

The first school of the hand-carved bear started in 1924, when Japanese farmers from the mainland, who had settled in the town of Yakumo in southern Hokkaido, began carving bear figures modeled after a souvenir from Switzerland.

The other carved-bear tradition can be traced back to Ainu artist Umetaro Matsui, who began carving bears in 1926. The early bears had features similar to a hog.

This exhibition focuses on the latter school that began with Matsui as it relates to the ikupasuy art tradition.

“(The bears) went on to become a favorite souvenir with tourists, thereby preserving the carving technique,” chief curator Satomi Igarashi said. “The bears actually played an important role in keeping the Ainu art and crafts tradition alive, well into modern times.”

After becoming well-acquainted with the unique Ainu way of expression, visitors are introduced to 120 pieces of work by nine contemporary Ainu artists.

Mieko Chikappu’s embroidery carries on the Ainu tradition, incorporating its almost magical patterns. But the way she develops the motifs and her color palette are truly modern.

Fabric artist Noriko Kawamura’s work takes Ainu subject matter to the next dimension. She unleashes her imagination to create stunning artworks that bring to mind such masters like Matisse or Taro Okamoto.

Wide-ranging wood sculptor Nuburi Toko hand carves bears. However, his works from the early 1980s are great abstract pieces reminiscent of Constantin Brancu?i and Henry Moore. His direction underwent another change in the late 1980s--like he was trying to release the images of God he perceives inside natural wood.

“For this exhibition, we chose not to feature artists who are intent on faithfully reproducing traditional Ainu art,” Igarashi said.

To put it differently, the artists selected for this exhibition are those who relate to their Ainu heritage yet are torn between tradition and modern times. Their work is born from a constant struggle.

Igarashi said it was important to show both the traditional and contemporary artworks side by side to never lose sight of the starting point.

Koji Kaizawa, known for his elegant wooden sculpting, and Kohei Fujito, who designed an ornate wooden smartphone case, are also introduced as “Ainu Style” artists.

By WAKATO ONISHI/ Senior Staff Writer
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Traditional “ikupasuy” or prayer sticks belonging to the Hakodate City Museum are on display. (Wakato Onishi)

Traditional “ikupasuy” or prayer sticks belonging to the Hakodate City Museum are on display. (Wakato Onishi)

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  • Traditional “ikupasuy” or prayer sticks belonging to the Hakodate City Museum are on display. (Wakato Onishi)
  • This “Carved wood bear” has a face resembling a hog. (Provided by the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art)
  • Inspiring embroidery pieces by Mieko Chikappu (Wakato Onishi)
  • “Yukarakuru/ Kataribe (storyteller)” by Nuburi Toko, 1989 (Wakato Onishi)
  • Sculptures by Koji Kaizawa (Wakato Onishi)
  • Kohei Fujito’s “iPhone Case,” 2009 (Wakato Onishi)

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