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East meets North

February 2011
CD 1959-023 SR © Canadian Museum of Civilization

In November of 1958, Canadian artist and civil servant James Houston landed in Tokyo with a mission to learn traditional Japanese printmaking techniques, and then bring this knowledge to the burgeoning studio in Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. The Canadian Museum of Civilization has made a thorough investigation of this little-known Japanese connection – with fascinating results. Come journey with us on a cultural exchange that has left a lasting impression.

The floe of art

The Inuit affectionately called him Saumik, ‘the left-handed one’. Born in Toronto in 1921, James Houston had studied at the Ontario College of Art and then visited the Canadian arctic for the first time in 1948. He immediately fell in love with the art – and the people – and in a few short years began working for the federal government to develop and garner recognition for Inuit art around the world.

Houston left a considerable mark on Cape Dorset, helping the artists start an art studio and a community-owned business cooperative, the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative. To this day, the studio is still known as one of the North’s bright lights of creativity, while the cooperative thrives with its many business ventures.

Houston had little knowledge in printmaking when he began experimenting with Inuit artists in Cape Dorset. He travelled to Japan, a land renowned for its ancient traditions, to study from some of the most respected contemporary printmakers in the world, including Un’ichi Hiratsuka. He brought back many teachings from Hiratsuka, as well as a collection of Japanese prints that would later serve to inspire a unique genre of Inuit art. This cultural alchemy is now captured in a stunning new exhibition, Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration.


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Travelling prints

Although Houston wrote fleetingly of his time in Japan, few details were publicly known. A major task lay before Norman Vorano, Curator of Contemporary Inuit Art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Using Houston’s sketches and first-person interviews, Vorano pieced-together his itinerary and uncovered a previously unknown wealth of cultural exchanges he had with some of Japan’s most revered contemporary artists. Importantly, the curator identified most of the prints Houston brought back from Japan, and then juxtaposed them with the earliest Cape Dorset prints to better understand how Inuit printmakers adapted, adopted or rejected techniques from the Far East.

Inuit CoverVorano’s labour of love led to a groundbreaking exhibition which showcases rare early original works from Cape Dorset and the Japanese prints that crisscrossed the globe with James Houston. The project highlights some of the ties that bind the two cultures and shows the marvelous outcome of cultural sharing and adaptation.

This magical visual tale of East meets North is being presented at the Canadian embassy in Tokyo until March 15th, 2011. The exhibition will travel the world – including, of course, stops in Canada. Click here to find out if this exhibition will be in your neighbourhood.

Do you want to learn more about the unique ties between Japan and Cape Dorset? Check out the wonderful catalogue of the Inuit Prints: Japanese Inspiration exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization bookstore or at our Cyberboutique.

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Canadian Museum of History
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Gatineau, Quebec K1A 0M8
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