Lay of the Land: A Conversation with Nenets Artist Evgeniy Salinder
If you place your finger on the top of a globe, it is a miniscule move to draw a line down from the North Pole to northwestern Siberia, where land greets the water. The borders have shifted since the end of the U.S.S.R. in 1989, but if you start on the western frontier and trace the shoreline to the right, your finger needs to move only a few centimetres east to reach the Kara Sea. Here a peninsula, named Yamal, sticks out like a thumb into the icy water. Yamal, explains Nenets artist Evgeniy Salinder, literally means “edge of land.” This place is aptly named.
The peninsula is home, and has been home for thousands of years, to the Nenets people. Their population of around 40,000 is predominantly nomadic, herding the largest population of reindeer in the world across the tundra. They choreograph their seasonal movements with the freeze and thaw of a landscape rich in lichen for hungry animals. This region also contains one of the world's largest deposits of natural gas. Like in the Arctic region in Canada, climate change has led to melting of the permafrost and to erratic weather conditions that negatively impact the Nenets way of life. Herds go hungry when rains come early or the ice doesn’t freeze in time for travelling to other seasonal camps. There is also the familiar story of resource extraction clashing with Indigenous ways of existing. Pipelines moving natural gas across the tundra may block the reindeer migration routes.
As with all Indigenous peoples, the Nenets culture has sustained them efficiently for millennia. Now, however, there is pressure to move into cities and towns. Children are shuffled off to boarding schools for the better part of the year – although Russian education does make an effort to retain language and culture in the schools. There are also other education models, such as travelling teachers who come to the ngesy – the Nenets word for encampment – to live with families, allowing children to learn while still being rooted in traditional routines. It can be difficult to navigate between these two poles. Although many Nenets choose an urban life, the majority still carry on as their ancestors have, generation after generation after generation.
Salinder is an urban Nenets. He was born and raised in the small city of Salekhard in the Yamalo-Nenets region. The word is derived from the Nenets language and means "house" or "settlement on the cape". A community has existed there on the Ob River for around 400 years. It was here that he discovered his love – and incredible talent – for art.
For the Nenets, reindeer are central to all that they do and all that they require for living. Reindeer provide food, shelter, clothing and transport. For Salinder, reindeer also provide the chosen medium for his sculptures. Diminutive in scale, his figures are carved out of bits of antler and other materials that he finds while out hunting and fishing.
His exquisite pieces form Sikhirtya and Animal Figures, on view in Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel at the National Gallery of Canada. Visiting the exhibition before the Gallery's closure due to COVID-19, I was pulled into their miniature world and was intrigued watching other visitors drawn into the work in the same way. At a moment when grand installations are the trend, it was refreshing to lean in close and linger on works small enough in scale to make it possible to take in all the details rendered by the artist’s hands.
Housed on shelves behind glass, there are 28 figures in total: 23 human figures and 4 animals (mammoths and reindeer), as well as his Swimmer (Self-Portrait). The figures' muted palette echoes the land they are from, with subtle hints of grey and green mixed in with bone-like tones. This effect is intentional. When collecting his material, Salinder selects broken bits that convey the process of natural weathering. Each figure moves in a slightly different fashion from its neighbour, yet together they form a community. One wonders – are these gestures about ceremony, of celebration? Some figures seem to have tools. Are these poses about labour, or are they shown performing a daily routine necessary for subsistence and living? For me, personally, they also recall the stories I have heard from the Anishinaabe about the Memegwesiwag or "Little People." Are there similar stories in the Nenets culture?
Interviewing Salinder, and joined by his representative and interpreter Alex Kuznetsov of the Circum-Arctic Gallery, I was able to gain greater insight into this small world, as well as Salinder’s home, culture and art process. As a child, he became obsessed with drawing scenes and including these little people. He was “immersed in that imaginative little world.” It was an escape for him. In high school, he was introduced to carving in wood, as well as antler, and the figures took on their three-dimensional forms. At this time, however, he didn’t make the connection between what was formed by his hands and what the Nenets refer to as Sikhirtya or Sirtya.
The Sikhirtya are the Little People in the Nenets cultural lore. Like the Memegwesiwag, they have supernatural abilities and exist somewhere between the visible and invisible worlds, but what is unique about them is what they are known for. They are blacksmiths who were skilled at the forge and in controlling mammoth herds. Although they belong to the realm of myths and stories, recent archaeological findings, Kuznetsov explains, point to a population of people who existed in the Yamal region prior to the arrival of the Nenets. Archaeologists have found dwellings that were built under the earth, the type of dug-outs the Nenets stories say the Sikhirtya lived in. These sites have also revealed metal formed into jewellery or tools, along with other material culture, supporting what the Nenets have passed on through oral history.
After serving in the military and then continuing his education, Salinder made the link between his figures and the Sikhirtya. At this time the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the resurgence that came after “heavily affected the art.” Buried knowledge re-emerged. As Kuznetsov translates for Salinder: “All the masters who could, started to carve and go back to their roots.”
Today, Nenets culture is thriving again. Salinder, still based in Salekhard, is also an educator, teaching applied arts at the college level, no doubt influencing other emerging Indigenous artists. He also continues to develop his own style, which Kuznetsov points out, is very unique for his region. While other carvers are known for working with materials and themes suited to popular tastes, Salinder’s work stands out for echoing the earth from which it came and drawing a line back thousands of years to when the Nenets and Sikhirtya walked within the same margins of the land.
Salinder's works are part of the exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel re-opening from July 23 to October 4, 2020 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.