Seeing Ainu as they want to be seen
Portrait project is the result of months spent living as part of village community
Keeping culture alive: Ainu ekashi (elder) Haruzo Urakawa sits in his self-built cise (traditional Ainu home), which serves as a meeting place and center for the dissemination of Ainu culture in Kimitsu, Chiba Prefecture. | LAURA LIVERANI / LUNCH BEE HOUSE
‘Imagine this place,” says Italian photographer Laura Liverani, as she tries to conjure up a picture of Nibutani, the village where she spent two months living with and photographing the indigenous people of Hokkaido. “There’s about 400 people that live there, it’s not very well connected to other areas so it’s very rural. There’s a strong presence of the Ainu, not only because 70 percent is of Ainu descent, but because it is culturally very active.
“I would call Nibutani, if not second home, a very familiar place.” One, she says, that will stay with her “forever.”
The first fruit of Liverani’s time in Hokkaido is “Ainu Nenoan Ainu” (“Human-like Human” in the Ainu language), a photographic portraiture series now being exhibited at the Italian Culture Institute in Tokyo.
Still in production is a documentary on the Ainu, a joint effort with collaborators Neo Sora and Valy Thorsteindottir, who also stayed in Nibutani. The trio call themselves Lunch Bee House, after an Ainu restaurant in the village. Liverani is tight-lipped about the content of the documentary, except to say that it focuses on two Ainu families, or “clans,” from Nibutani.
“The actual project started in 2012,” Liverani explains. “I was taking photos and talking to people informally and becoming engaged with the Ainu community. Then I thought I need a little bit more depth into the project, so I had the idea of making a documentary, but I had no experience in filmmaking.
“I’d like to call ourselves a punk band of filmmaking,” she says of Lunch Bee House, “because none of us have a clear position in filmmaking — we just wanted to get on stage and play.”
The rural remoteness of Nibutani first came as a shock. “There are no shops, no places to hang out, just one drive-in restaurant and that’s about it,” Liverani says. What it does have in abundance, however, is culture.
“There are Ainu museums and Ainu activists, and everyone is so engaged in promoting and reinventing and preserving Ainu culture and language,” she explains. “It was very passionate.”
Such efforts are important considering the community’s history. The Ainu are one of Japan’s most marginalized groups. They were only officially recognized as the indigenous people of northern Japan in 2008, following the passage of the Resolution on the Rights of Indigenous People at the United Nations. Oppression and discrimination have contributed to the erosion of the culture over the century or so since Japan’s colonization of Hokkaido during the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
The official figure for the number of Ainu in Japan now stands at 25,000, but unofficial estimates put it closer to 200,000, considering that the policy of forced assimilation into Japanese society means many people of Ainu descent may not even be aware of their heritage.
“The main theme in my series of photographs is actually the theme of identity, so how people represent themselves as Ainu,” says Liverani. “The theme of adoption through Ainu culture is very strong, a very strong point in my work.”
Adopted culture: Although not an Ainu by blood, Magi embraced the indigenous way of life, having lived as an Ainu in a commune in Nibutani for many years. She is skilled in Ainu embroidery, which she incorporates into her hand-made clothes, and she gathers plants in the mountains near her home, where she is pictured. | LAURA LIVERANI / LUNCH BEE HOUSE
Collaboration was key to this project for Liverani, who insisted on including the subject of the photo in the decision-making process of orchestrating the portrait.
“My idea was to subvert the language of the anthropological portrait by engaging the people in the portrait,” she says. “So I would ask people how they would want to be photographed … so it wouldn’t be only my own projection onto the person, but it would be more a collaboration and the person photographed would have a say in how they would want to be represented. So the portrait became the only possible mode.”
But the project grew to encompass more of what constitutes Ainu culture.
“I started with portraits but obviously a portrait is just partial,” she says. “It became natural to expand the narrative with other photographs, but the portraits are still the core of the project.”
However, Lunch Bee House’s time in Nibutani wasn’t just about the film or Liverani’s photography. She says the three visitors made real, meaningful connections with the people and the community.
“We were sort of adopted by families,” Liverani says. “Of course, we were working on the documentary and on the photo series, so our position was clear, but at the same time we became friends. It was hanging out and also working — it was all entangled together. It was quite an intense and interesting experience.”
Laura Liverani’s documentary photography project “Ainu Nenoan Ainu” is showing at the Italian Cultural Institute in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, until Saturday, March 18. The artist will be at the exhibition on Thursday, March 16, 4-6 p.m. For information, please contact the Istituto Italiano di Cultura via firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on 03-3264-6011 (extensions 24, 10). Comments: email@example.com