Inuit Art at Expo ’70
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.
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