Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People
Rising From Adversity
During the first half of the twentieth century, severe economic straits forced Ainu carvers to carve bear and other figurative art for the tourist trade. This was deeply disturbing to a culture whose spiritual beliefs with few exceptions did not allow the depiction of life forms. Today, despite more than a century of social discrimination, economic hardship, and pressure for assimilation, a remarkable resurgence of Ainu culture is taking place. Building on the experience of producing tourist art, Ainu artists are developing important new forms of fine art that are characteristically Ainu.
Ainu Dance and Ceremony
Inaw: Messengers to the Gods
Giichi Nomura, Former Executive Director of Utari Kyokai (Ainu Association of Hokkaido), addressing the United Nations General Assembly, 10 December 1992 UN 182264
(1) Object QTVR
1. Carved Bear
Umetaro Matsui, 1920s
(3) Objects w/captions – STILLS
By Suzuki from Asahikawa, 1960s
2. Miniature Totem Pole
Small totem poles with Ainu motifs were probably first carved to sell to American soldiers who occupied Hokkaido after World War II. Model totem poles continue to be a small but important part of contemporary Ainu tourist art production. Today such tourist areas as Akan and Shiraoi have full-scale Ainu-style totem poles in their museum compounds.
3. Small Carved Bear
When tourists began to travel to Ainu homelands in the early 1920s, Ainu began carving bears for sale to visitors, but their stiff, ungainly results soon earned the nickname of "pig-bears."
Sakhalin Asahikawa City Museum 4436
1. Commentary on Bear Carvings by Curator William Fitzhugh
"When Japanese came to Hokkaido they really hit the Ainu homelands very hard and took away their fishing stations, many of their resources and Ainu were left with very few ways to make a living. One of the things that started working for them in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was art. So the Ainu became museum people. They began to open small museums and they began to do art and craft for the tourists, both Japanese and others. And one of the first objects that became kind of a key symbol for the Ainu because of their religious life and their belief in the bear was to make bear carvings. And we have here some of the earliest bear carvings that were made, the small bear, rather stylized, from when the Ainu first began to experiment with this kind of tourist art. And later on artists developed much more skill in portraying naturalistic bears. The problem for the Ainu was that the bear was the most important ritual animal in their culture and to change it into a monetary item for them was extremely difficult and many Ainu refused to have anything to do with this economy. But gradually they separated some of their economic and some of their religious interests and today the Ainu are known mostly in the craft world as bear carvers."
2. Commentary on Bear Carvings by Curator Chisato Dubreuil
"This is a wooden bear and this kind of wooden bear was made for tourists. And this was very difficult. Our art didn't have representations of specific animals or specific natural things. We believe the bear is the most important god in our religion."
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