ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. — Since her arrival in the United States in the mid-’80s to study art history in the Pacific Northwest, Chisato “Kitty” O. Dubreuil has devoted much of her research to illustrate that the indigenous people of Japan are “a living culture.”
Now the Ainu (EYE-noo), relatively unknown beyond their homeland of Northern Japan, are being introduced to people in the Spanish-speaking world.
One of only a handful of Ainu researchers in the United States, Dubreuil, an assistant professor of art history at St. Bonaventure University, has focused her in-country research on contemporary Japanese and Ainu visual arts and culture, as well as the traditional and contemporary arts of the native cultures of North America.
“I want to emphasize Ainu as a living culture. To have my work translated into Spanish is a great honor,” Dubreuil said.
Last spring, Dubreuil was contacted by Dr. Mauricio Martinez, a scholar at Los Andes University in Bogota, Colombia, whose specialty is Japanese art and culture. He had read some of Dubreuil’s many publications about the Ainu and wanted to bring the Ainu culture to the attention of Spanish-speaking countries. So far, Martinez has translated two of Dubreuil’s articles into Spanish.
The first paper he translated was “The Ainu and Their Culture: A Critical Twenty-first Century Assessment”: (translation title) “Los Ainu y su Cultura: Consideraciones Criticas para el Siglo XXI.” That paper is online at www.japonartesescenicas.org/ainu.html. In the article, Dubreuil discusses the origins of the Ainu and reflects on the social, political and cultural discrimination the Ainu have faced.
Martinez also has translated “Her name is Peramonkoro,” Dubreuil’s short story about Ainu Peramonkoro Sunazawa, one of the most respected textile artists of the 20th century. The translated story is available online at www.japonartesescenicas.org/ainu/articulos/peramonkoro.html.
As a Colombian researcher of Asian performing arts, Martinez has been developing web encyclopedias of Asian performing arts (Japan, Korea and India) in Spanish since 2005. He has also been an Asian music radio producer in Colombia since 1995.
When he began teaching about Asian performing arts in Colombia (1998), he discovered there was a lack of materials on these subjects in Spanish. Initially he started a website with materials aimed at his students, but he soon was contacted by people from other countries interested in materials on Asian music, dance and theater.
“Due to the increasing number of visitors to the site, I realized it was important to make the website into a major project as an encyclopedia,” said Martinez. He began with the Japanese encyclopedia at Nichibunken (International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto) under a Japan Foundation Fellowship.
In the summer of 2010, Martinez received a grant from The Japan Foundation to spend five weeks in the Northern Japanese island of Hokkaido researching Ainu performing arts. The main source of information for his research was Dubreuil’s articles.
“After returning to Colombia and in order to start an Ainu section in my Japanese encyclopedia, I considered that first it was necessary to tell the story of the Ainu since in the Spanish-speaking countries almost nobody knows who Ainu people are. Thanks to Professor Dubreuil’s articles, I had been able to understand what was important to know about the history and culture of Ainu people, who were and who are the most outstanding personalities,” said Martinez.
Most Westerners have the misconception that the people of Japan are “all one culture, a perfect example of homogeneity,” Dubreuil explained. Originally a maritime culture, the Ainu have a physical appearance — muscular bodies, deep-set eyes, abundant body hair and long flowing beards — that is different from other Japanese or its neighboring races.
Of Ainu descent herself, Dubreuil said her goal is “to teach Ainu culture, and discrimination and art.”
Dubreuil has brought the Ainu to life through articles, books and lectures, but she has also brought them to life by collaborating on exhibits across North America.
In 2004, she was the project manager for the three-week International Festival of (Indigenous) Canoes in Maui, Hawaii, an annual event aimed at helping preserve the indigenous cultures of the Pacific. She enlisted a team of Ainu from Hokkaido to create a traditional 30-foot ocean-going canoe to join those of other participating teams from the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga and the Marshall Islands.
In 1999, Dubreuil co-curated a major Smithsonian exhibition on Ainu culture that was the first to include work by contemporary Ainu artists to complement the traditional art and artifacts. Co-curated with William Fitzhugh, director of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, Dubreiul also partnered with Fitzhugh to co-edit “Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People,” a critically acclaimed volume of interdisciplinary contributions by scholars of Ainu issues.
At Dubreuil’s insistence, the Smithsonian exhibition contained a section devoted to contemporary Ainu art. It included the work of the late artist and political activist Bikky Sunazawa, who drew inspiration from the work and popularity of Northwest Coast native art, particularly that of the late Haida artist Bill Reid. Sunazawa is credited with lifting Ainu art from tourist-based commerciality to the realm of fine art.
On the faculty in the Department of Art and Performing Arts at St. Bonaventure, Dubreuil joined the university in 2008, shortly after its art history program was launched. She teaches courses on Japanese, Asian, and Native American art, among others.
Dubreuil has presented numerous papers on the indigenous people of Japan and North America, sharing her research on the cultural, political and social aspects of their lives. She has consulted with museum staff in Britain, Washington, Wisconsin, Japan and Australia on indigenous art displays. Dubreuil’s publishing, however, has almost exclusively been in North America because she was considered “too aggressive” in her home country.
She also has two books in progress: “The Tsimshian Artists of the Gitksan” is the working title for a book on the professional artists movement among the Northwest Pacific Coast tribes from prehistory to contemporary times, and “The Art of the Northwest Coast ‘Copper’ Icon” is the working title for an important book on the cultural evolution of the Copper, a significant indigenous icon on the Northwest Coast that was a repository of value confirmed by potlatching (social and ceremonial gatherings on the Northwest Coast).
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