Inuit Art at Expo ’70

Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - by John Geoghe­gan

From a lost work of art to an abrupt de­par­ture, this piece explores the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the Cana­dian Pavil­ion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Ja­pan, and the lit­tle-known story of the del­e­ga­tion of Inuit carvers who at­tended.

Of­ten the stories be­hind an ob­ject’s cre­ation and the cu­ri­ous cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing its origin can be so cap­ti­vat­ing or re­mark­able that they im­bue that ob­ject with tremen­dous in­trigue. One such mystery in­volves the work known as the Inuit Venus de Milo, carved out of Que­bec ser­pen­ti­nite by John Pang­nark (1920–1980) while in Osaka, Ja­pan, for Expo ’70 and gifted to the Prince of Wales that same year. Though the piece is thought to be lost, it marks a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in Inuit art his­tory.

When Expo ’70 opened in Osaka, Inuit art had a much stronger pres­ence than at any World’s Fair be­fore it. Both art­works and artists were on dis­play in the high modernist Cana­dian Gov­ern­ment Pavil­ion by Erick­son/ Massey Ar­chi­tects. Dur­ing this pe­riod, the height of the Cold War, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment claimed and pro­moted Inuit art for the pur­poses of cul­tural diplo­macy. It is ironic that Inuit art was cho­sen as a sym­bol of Cana­dian na­tion­al­ism in a pe­riod when the gov­ern­ment sought to re­press Inuit tra­di­tional

life through poli­cies of era­sure. De­spite these at­tempts, artists re­mained re­silient and used the in­ter­na­tional stage to pro­mote tra­di­tional cul­ture and teach­ings.

In 1968 Keno­juak Ashe­vak, CC, ON,

RCA (1927–2013) and John­niebo Ashe­vak (1923–1972) were com­mis­sioned to cre­ate a plas­ter mu­ral for Expo ’70 that saw them liv­ing and work­ing in Ot­tawa for two months. The high con­trast, re­lief mu­ral fea­tured a quintessen­tial Keno­juak owl— feath­ers and plumes ra­di­at­ing in all di­rec­tions. Sur­round­ing the cen­tral owl were pan­els de­pict­ing an­i­mals, spir­its and a camp scene. At over three me­tres tall and four me­tres across, it was her­alded as the largest art­work by Inuit artists ever. Fol­low­ing com­ple­tion, the mu­ral was shipped to

Ja­pan to hang in the Cana­dian Pavil­ion. Keno­juak and John­niebo were in­vited to travel to Expo ’70, but de­clined the of­fer.

In their place, four artists—Sy­ol­lie Ami­tuk (1936–1986), John Pang­nark, Eliyah Pootoo­gook and Paul Toolook­took (1947– 2003)—flew to Ja­pan in Fe­bru­ary 1970, where they were set to live for six months while carv­ing daily in the Cana­dian Pavil­ion. Ami­tuk was a tal­ented carver and print­maker from Pu­vir­ni­tuq, Nu­navik, QC, well known for his stone­cuts, while Pang­nark, the old­est artist of the group, was gain­ing recog­ni­tion for his de­cid­edly min­i­mal sculp­tures carved from Ki­valliq stone. Pootoo­gook, the only Inuit artist of the group to have work at both Expo ’67 and Expo ’70, had con­trib­uted to the an­nual print col­lec­tions in Kin­ngait (Cape Dorset), NU, as artist and print­maker through­out the 1960s. Fi­nally, Toolook­took, the youngest of the group, worked pri­mar­ily as a carver in the com­mu­nity of Qa­mani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU.

The artists were joined by Iqar­lik, Quit­saq and Novoa­lik Pootoo­gook—the wife and chil­dren of Eliyah Pootoo­gook—as well as Keith and Edna Crowe and their chil­dren. Keith Crowe, who was em­ployed at the Depart­ment of In­dian Af­fairs and North­ern Devel­op­ment (now Indige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs Canada), had lived in the North and spoke Inuk­tut, while Edna Crowe was flu­ent in Ja­panese. The cou­ple acted as in­ter­preters for the artists while in Ja­pan. The artists, along­side the Pootoo­gook and Crowe fam­i­lies, lived in apart­ments close to the Expo grounds. The con­stant noise and bustling at­mos­phere was a ma­jor ad­just­ment for the artists, most of whom had never lived out­side of their re­spec­tive small north­ern com­mu­ni­ties.

In Osaka, the artists worked in the Cana­dian Pavil­ion be­neath the mu­ral carved by Keno­juak and John­niebo Ashe­vak. Work­ing in shifts, they made carv­ings or

Dur­ing this pe­riod, the height of the Cold War, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment claimed and pro­moted Inuit art for the pur­poses of cul­tural diplo­macy.

bas-re­lief sculp­tures as vis­i­tors ob­served them from be­hind a dis­play show­cas­ing Inuit art and arte­facts. Ami­tuk and Pootoo­gook en­joyed carv­ing the plas­ter pan­els sim­i­lar to those pro­duced by the Ashe­vaks, while Pang­nark and Toolook­took worked on three­d­i­men­sional sculp­tures, al­most ex­clu­sively. Steatite was im­ported from the East­ern Town­ships in Que­bec, as the soft stone was thought to be easy for the artists to carve.

In the open­ing days and weeks of the fair, dig­ni­taries and heads of state, notably the Em­peror and Empress of Ja­pan, vis­ited the Cana­dian Pavil­ion. Oc­ca­sion­ally, these vis­i­tors were given gifts. Crowe re­called Pang­nark sit­ting with his feet up on a box: “Hap­pily he beamed at Prince Charles, who was quite un­known to him, while, all around, the area fairly seethed with pro­to­col and se­cu­rity.”¹ One of Pang­nark’s sculp­tures was given to the prince as a po­lit­i­cal ges­ture from the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment. While Pang­nark had been work­ing on the piece one of the ap­pendages broke off, per­haps be­cause the artist was not used to the stone, which was much softer than the basalt he usu­ally carved in Arviat, NU. Pang­nark’s re­sponse was to take an axe and re­move the other arm. At the time, the sculp­ture was re­ferred to in the press as the Inuit Venus de Milo.

Six weeks af­ter ar­riv­ing in Osaka, Pang­nark left Ja­pan and re­turned to his home in Arviat. Though he was meant to stay un­til the pavil­ion closed in Oc­to­ber, the bustling en­vi­ron­ment of Ja­pan and the re­quire­ment that he carve for hours each day proved too much for the artist. Though lit­tle has been recorded about the spe­cific art­works cre­ated in the pavil­ion or their reception, the in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure un­doubt­edly in­flu­enced the rise of Pang­nark’s ca­reer. In May 1970, a month af­ter re­turn­ing from Ja­pan, the ex­hi­bi­tion Oonark/Pang­nark opened at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Man (now the Cana­dian Mu­seum of His­tory) in Ot­tawa, ON, and be­gan a na­tional tour. The fol­low­ing year, the ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion Sculp­ture/Inuit in­cluded five of the artist’s works on its in­ter­na­tional tour. Pang­nark con­tin­ued to make works un­til his pass­ing in 1980, but he never again trav­elled away from his home to make art or at­tend an ex­hi­bi­tion. NOTES ¹ Keith Crowe, “Eski­mos in Ja­pan,” The Beaver (Spring 1971): 57.

by John Geoghe­gan

LEFT Page from the ar ticle “Inuit to Ja­pan” in the Spring 1980 An­niver­sary is­sue of Inuk­ti­tut

BE­LOW Expo ’70 poster de­signed by Shi­geo Fukuda

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.