The White Native Body in Asia: Woodcut Engraving and the Creation of Ainu Stereotypes

The indigenous Ainu of northern Japan fascinated travelers as they searched for an “authentic” native experience in the unexplored Japanese frontier. Idealized as a singular white race stranded in the North Pacific, writers, artists, and anthropologists not only textually described Ainu manners and customs but also reproduced countless photographs and illustrations, which would come to visually define Ainu culture in the Euro-American imaginary. Since works depicting the Ainu tended to be overly reliant on readily available woodcut engravings based on photographs from the tourist trade, a small body of images came to stand in for the whole of Ainu experience and culture in the eyes of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century European and American readers. Eventually, even Ainu producers of image and text would have no choice but to engage with these dominant representations. This paper examines the role of popular printmaking of the Ainu as a complex, multi-media endeavor. I investigate links between original albumen prints, such as those by Baron Raimund von Stillfried (1839 – 1911), their reproduction, and their eventual translation into the medium of woodcut engraving or illustration. Understanding the gradual development of optical consistency from photographs to the printed illustrations based on them can better illuminate the calcification of Ainu stereotypes at home and abroad and the flourishing debate over Ainu whiteness in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Client: College Art Association Date: February 13-16, 2019 Services: Washington D.C.

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