Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Ainu and the Antique Store: Minnesota Edition

After 12 months of research in Hokkaido, I returned to California in 2014 to finish my dissertation. It was a large and intimidating project, and I worked off the stress by surfing antique shops throughout SoCal. All those years ago, I wrote a post about a pair of Ainu nipopo dolls that I stumbled across in an Orange antique shop. It reminded me of the travel economy and the emergence of these dolls as a staple of the tourist trade.

Old habits die hard. Not too long ago, I was doing some antique shopping in Hopkins, Minnesota. I came across some great Japanese stereoviews which I picked up, in addition to Meiji-era maps that were likely inserts in Western travelogues. But imagine my surprise when I spotted this woman out of the corner of my eye. She was standing on a shelf too high for me to reach. When we finally brought her down from her long-time resting place, her tag merely read “ethnic doll.” I decided that she would join her Orange County friends. When I brought her up to the register, the clerk examined her closely and explained to me how this was likely a wooden figure of Norwegian or Swedish origin, pointing out the details that led her to a conclusion: the rough hewn surface, the patterns in the clothing, and finally, the facial features. She looked at me with suspicion when I explained that it was a doll from Japan, from the indigenous people in the north called the Ainu. I can’t say I blame her skepticism… What would an Ainu nipopo be doing in a Minnesota antique shop, anyway? Considering the Scandavian roots of those that settled this region, a Swedish or Norwegian doll would be much easier to accept. But in some ways, she may not have been too far off the mark. The Ainu did not begin carving bears or nipopo dolls for tourist consumption until they fell into hard economic times in the 1920s. The practice may have been inspired by the works being created in Scandanavia. It is an interesting linked history.

She lives in my office now and gives me cause to talk about my work with students. It never ceases to amaze me how a small doll can tell so much about this history.

Antique Finds: Inuit in the Twin Cities

The greatest part of moving to St. Paul thus far has been the sheer amount of local antique and thrift shops. I love antiquing because of the treasures you unexpectedly come across. A while ago, I posted about two Ainu nipopo dolls that I stumbled across in an Orange County shop. Although I will never again be so lucky, it is surprisingly easy to find affordable and original artwork when antiquing. Although I am usually pretty lucky with American prints and lithographs, this past weekend I spotted an Inuit painting of a salmon hung high on the wall. Needless to say, about an hour later, it came home with me.

 

Spawning Salmon Rattle by Haida-Salish artist Jordon Seward. Yellow cedar and cedar bark.

Spawning Salmon Rattle by Haida-Salish artist Jordon Seward. Yellow cedar and cedar bark.

Salmon was and is a lifeline for many northern indigenous peoples, the Ainu included. In Hokkaido, Ainu elders hold ceremonies for the divine fish (kamuy cep) to ensure their abundance each year. The fish held importance as both spirit and sustenance. (If you want to know more about the relationship between the Ainu and salmon, especially now, I recommend this essay). It is amazing how the stories of the salmon in the Pacific Northwest resonate with those of the Ainu. Recounted by Clint Leung, the salmon were seen as eternal people who lived in the ocean. When the tribes who lived on land were starving, the salmon presented themselves as fish to ease their hunger. The bones of the salmon were ceremonially taken back to the ocean in order to ensure their return the following year. Animals that give themselves to satiate our hunger are worthy of our respect.

 

The Trapped Salmon by Haisla artist Lyle Wilson. Glass and aluminum.

In 2010, the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver held a show called The Return: Salmon Imagery in Northwest Coast Art. The artists blended traditional designs and iconography with their own signature style and materials in sculpture, painting, and jewelry design. The “return” in the title could refer to the yearly return of the spawning salmon to the river or the original return of the salmon’s bones to the ocean. But it could also refer to a return of interest in a fish that has been heavily impacted by everything from industrialization, over fishing, pollution, to climate change. As various species dwindle, people are once again considering the cultural and environmental importance of the fish. The website for exhibition shares a quote from Andy Everson, who explains, “People often ask me why I keep including salmon in my artwork. The answer to this lies with the importance of salmon to me, my relatives and my ancestors. Put simply, salmon was the vital link between mere survival and the development of the splendor of our culture.”

 

One thing about looking at art from the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshiam, Kwagiutl and Sadish peoples in the Pacific Northwest is that there is a certain inventiveness and consistency of design that makes the styles iconic. I agree with Leung in that if you put works from this region next to any other, you would still be able to isolate those features which make it unique. Although his e-book on Pacific Northwest art focuses on sculpture and falls short of an academic treatise, it provides a helpful cheat sheet for beginners introducing some of these design elements–the formline, the ovoid shape, the u-form shape, the split u-form shape, and the s-form shape. These small elements are combined, juxtaposed, and contrasted to create larger forms. Most all of these shapes can be found in Lyle Wilson’s The Trapped Salmon above, but they are also present in the painting that I found.

 

In this work, the formline of the salmon is a thick and black modulated line that encases most of the body. Although most contemporary artists use commercial ink, in traditional works, the formline was typically created with pigment from charcoal, graphite or lignite charcoal. Occasionally red formlines are also seen, created from red ochre or hematite. Several ovoid shapes make their appearance here. It defines the eye socket of the salmon, fills out the fin, and is used to hinge together the body and the tail. The body of the salmon is defined by contrasting s-form shapes, which mimic the striation of the salmon’s flesh, and split u-form shapes perhaps reminding us of its bone structure. The split u-form shape reappears inside the eye, fin, and tail. And, finally, the fish’s gills are defined by a single, simple u-form shape. The aspect of this work that interests me is the string of pearly red roe spewed almost fountain-like out of the mouth of a face located near the fish’s pelvis.

 

All of these small shapes merge together to form a larger creature. Alongside the salmon, artworks commonly feature the bear, the killer whale, the thunderbird, and the raven. The repetition of common forms across these sacred creatures is a powerful device in both traditional and contemporary art. I also find that art from the Pacific Northwest presents a great opportunity for teaching students visual analysis, and the differences between iconography and style, or about the different effects of line, space, and color.

 

IMG_0475.jpgIn my own research on the Ainu, it is not all that common to see representational art in older work (although bear carving and representations of salmon are both present staples of tourist and contemporary art). Instead, most graphic art similarly focuses on the repetition of smaller design elements, called siriki in Ainu. In embroidery and woodcarving, these patterns are combined into unique compositions, as seen here in these Ainu robes. I’ve reproduced a helpful chart from the Ainu Pirka Kotan website for your reference below. Occasionally there is more in common than what appears at first glance.

 

 

"Ainu Siriki," from Ainu Pirka Kotan website.

“Ainu Siriki,” from Ainu Pirka Kotan website.

If anybody knows any information about the artist of this work (or helpful resources that may point me in the right direction), please do let me know. I would love to learn more about it.

Ainu and the Antique Store

photo 6_editedMy childhood in Pennsylvania was filled of memories of antique shops, flea markets, auctions, and estate sales. I think it was somewhere between the rows of old objects that I discovered a love of history and a passion for the hunt. I vividly remember summer Saturdays, watching the world fly by from the passenger seat of my mother’s car. It lacked air conditioning and my legs used to stick to the seat every time we stopped to check out a new garage sale. When our search was over, we would giddily talk about our “finds” on the drive home, and remember the new neighborhoods through which we traveled, guided only by little neon-colored signs with a poor sense of direction.

This past weekend, J and I were rooting through old antique shops in Old Towne Orange, CA. Often called the “Antique Capital of Southern California,” small shops and specialty cafes decorate a one-mile stretch around the historic Orange Plaza. Proceeding from shop to shop, I relived the days of my youth feeling my way around the unique and rusted.

Old souvenir objects from Japan and China seem to be a staple of the antique market, and there is no shortage of blue-and-white porcelain, geisha dolls, and Chinoiserie. But you can imagine my surprise when stumbling upon two modest wood-carved figures of an Ainu man and woman. As if experiencing a bend in time, my childhood activities seemed to link directly to my current research.

The two figures were each strangled by a snap lock pin security loop from which a price tag dangled: “Carved Wood Figure, $4.00 each.” They were sandwiched between a vintage straw hot pad that my grandmother might have used and a porcelain vase with a faux wood finish, decorated with a butterfly and the words “Maui.” In front of the figures were ashtrays of various designs, materials, and patterns. A large Native American figure loomed on the shelf above them along with brass and crystal candlesticks and an over-sized plastic M&M figurine. Kitsch at its best.

The pair was probably produced in Hokkaido as a tourist souvenir. Beginning in the late Taisho era (ca. 1924), dolls like these were produced by the Ainu specifically for a tourist market. The figures have roots the Ainu nipopo doll, which was carved and utilized by shamans as protective amulets. Although it was against Ainu beliefs to depict the human form in a non-religious context, the tourist trade was an important source of income for a vulnerable group of people dependent on the government (Dubreul 1999). Ainu dolls like these are often compared to the Japanese kokeshi, since some souvenir versions are more rounded in shape. But while kokeshi are lathe-turned,  Ainu dolls are carved (McDowell 2011).

For me, this pair of dolls amongst the random items on an American antique store shelf is a testament to the American interest in the Ainu and Hokkaido; an interest that feels almost alien to us today. But even now, any traveler can buy similar wooden Ainu dolls at almost every major tourist spot on the island. I can only guess how this couple landed in an antique store in Orange, CA, but their mere presence speaks to these larger networks of circulation and exchange.

I opened my wallet and laid the $8 on the counter.

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