Unlike most children, with a new idea every week about what they will be when they grow up, Evgeniy Salinder always knew exactly what he would become. Whenever adults posed the famous question to young Salinder, his reply was automatic and steadfast: “An artist!”
Salinder was born in 1981 in Salekhard, located on the edge of the Arctic circle in the Yamalo-Nenets region of northwest Siberia. Raised by his mother, Larisa Nikolaevna Salinder, he takes pride in being Nenets. His ancestors are known for their ability to excel in harsh conditions: hunting, herding of reindeer, and mastering the knife and axe to create narti (sleds) and tinzyan (lassos). “If a Nenets man completed any kind of work, he tried to make it not just good quality, but also beautiful,” Salinder said.
This appreciation of quality and beauty is innate in Salinder. He has loved to draw as long as he can remember, and his talents were encouraged by his mother and his mother's brother. His uncle, who studied art at the famous Stroganova school in Moscow, gave Salinder more than just fond memories of his visits – he passed on stacks of art books to his nephew. Noticing his talent, his mother enrolled him in a local art studio at age 13, where he first experimented with wood and bone carving. Salinder was one of the oldest and most independent students there, and his teacher didn't hesitate to provide him the freedom to explore his own creative development. His self-guided approach to art has remained with him throughout his career. The studio successfully nurtured his artistic abilities; he earned the praise of his teacher and became an example for younger students. His artwork was sent off to various exhibitions throughout Russia.
In 1997, he entered Lapzuya, Salekhard's school for culture and art, where he studied as a master artist. Following that, he entered the St. Petersburg State University of Technology and Design, which he attended for four years until he realized he wasn't receiving the practical training he desired. Instead of mingling with graphic and fashion designers, he sought the company of other artists like himself in Salekhard, where he returned to teach and create.
Media and Themes
As a rule, Salinder uses media naturally found in the Yamalo-Nenets region: reindeer antler, mammoth tusk, moose antler, larch, birch, and cedar. These materials help create the themes he wants to portray in his works, which are in fact dedicated to his region. “The most important theme is that which is found in the process of working,” he said. “The actual theme is suggested by the material.” He loves finding bits of tossed-aside bone or wood that appear ugly at first glance. He then evaluates the pieces by color and texture. “I already see the form, like a deer antler and other material, given by nature. I just lead it to its final version.” Sometimes even he doesn't know at first what the final product will look like – a stylized figure or a complex composition.
Naturally, Salinder has absorbed much from his training into his current methods. For instance, it was in the studio that he was first introduced to volumetric sculpture – an art form that plays with solid and void properties. He incorporates these ideas in his sculptures today. And yet, some of his artistic foundations are unshakable. While still in school, he had no shame in creating figures without arms or eyes. “It seemed normal to use that manner of depicting people and animals,” he said. Even now, he affirms that it matters not if a figure has one arm or two. Also as a youth, he was fascinated watching his older peers create massive snow and ice sculptures. “At one time, I was literally obsessed with the sculpture of large forms.” He chose not to pursue the study of such sizable creations then, still so young and lacking in formal training. But now, when it's time for the winter holidays, he enjoys creating ephemeral wonders of ice and snow. Currently, he passes on his knowledge working with young artists in Salekhard. “I try to do my part to guide students, as I was in my time guided by my older friends.”
In the Works
Salinder looks ever forward. He doesn't have a favorite piece, because his previous work fades to the background as he focuses on new ideas. “I hope that my favorite, best sculptures are ahead of me,” he said. Currently, he is working on three small, nude sculptures – Nenets writhing against the scourge of mosquitos that causes so much discomfort in Yamal among people and reindeer alike. The figures' weather-beaten faces and hands markedly contrast with the pale skin of their bodies, which was protected by thick clothing during the winter months. Salinder's Sirtya figures have also received considerable attention. His unique bone carvings, only two to five inches tall, feature eye-catching designs of lines, concentric circles, piercing holes, leather laces and bone rings. The Sirtya people predated the Nenets culture, leaving behind little beyond mysterious stories and ancient archaeological findings. Though Sirtya have reached an almost legendary status, for Salinder they are more than that. “They're not legends, but history.” As a culture, Sirtya loved to decorate themselves, as they were often considered to be skilled blacksmiths and jewelers. Salinder said he barely realized what he was doing as he adorned his figures. “The first 100 figures I made with such pleasure that I didn't even notice,” he said. He likens the strips of leather and rings of bone to lassos, used for herding reindeer. In many cases, the strips graze the ground, creating a connection with the earth. “I want to express the entrance to their dugout homes.” Nenets have often referred to the ancient race as “people of the earth,” dwelling underground. The circular openings that pass through some of the bodies have prompted even more questions, he said; some people are even scared by them. Yet his intention was completely different – “The circle is one of the most ideal figures, and I decided the holes and circles would look harmonious.”
Life as an Artist
The drawbacks to being a master in the field of fine arts are many. Among them, Salinder cites feeling somehow different and separate, as it is difficult to explain a profession dedicated to working with one's hands in the 21st century. Yet nothing can overshadow the joy his career brings him. Salinder says it best: “I can officially go to work every day with great desire, immerse myself in work that I love, and receive for that my salary.”
By Tamara Kula
One would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate name for the snowy expanse of Siberian tundra hugged by the Arctic waters of the Kara Sea. The Nenets word for their homeland – Yamal – means exactly that: “ya” refers to ‘world,’ while “mal” is the term for edge.
Considering their population of almost 45 thousand, the Nenets cover a vast territory on the map. The Samoyedic people from which Nenets have descended originated in Southern Siberia. They traveled north before the 12th century, inhabiting what is now the Yamalo-Nenets region. What looks like empty, barren land is in fact crisscrossed by ancient routes and dotted with the camps.
For centuries, Nenets have herded reindeer along these paths, stopping to set up their nomadic home, called a chum or mya depending on the dialect. The pulse of this life is determined by the deer, to which they owe their clothes, their lassos, and their homes. Nenets are always ready to relocate at a moment's notice.
The man chooses the location of the home, but the chum itself is built by a woman – without a single nail. First, the location for a fire is chosen, then a wooden floor is built around it. Mats of willow twigs and hay become a bed. Then come the poles and the niuks: reindeer skins in the winter, tarpaulin or birch bark in the summer, stretched over the frame. At this point, the chum becomes a real home, ready to provide hot tea and shelter from the winds.
No matter whether they are tundra or forest Nenets - two groups with significantly different dialects – their traditional lifestyle is sustained by hunting, fishing, and herding. More than 10,000 Nenets herd about 300,000 reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula, which makes up a good portion of the Yamal-Nenets region where most Nenets live. This land of severe cold, as much as 50 below zero Celsius in winter months, is simply a part of life.
The Nenets migration patterns depend on the seasons and the sustainability of the pastures for the reindeer they care for. Just to the south of the Arctic Circle in the winter, Nenets move the herds northward in the spring before the thaw comes. They spend their short summer in the northern tundra and return south in the fall, completing a migration of 1,100 km, which includes crossing the frozen Ob River. The reindeer pull the sleighs loaded with everything needed for the camp.
With their rich oral history, the Nenets culture is rooted in shamanism, connecting the people to their environment through their belief in the spirits that inhabit plants and animals. Many a tradition is tied to sacrifices and rituals, taking place at specific life events — birth, marriage, death. Legends and songs keep the ancient Nenets' ancestral knowledge alive. The music often uses no instruments besides the shamans' drums. Though still practiced, shamanism is losing its old members who practice it. Nenets deities are represented by dolls carried on sacred sledges. In the Yamal tundra, there are holy sites in the far north where the dolls are sometimes exchanged.
Throughout their people's history, Nenets have struggled to maintain their way of life. Russian Revolution, forced relocation, boarding schools, and Stalin's decree to pay reindeer meat as taxes created hardships during Soviet times. Recently, the Yamal Peninsula has seen large-scale pipeline developments as a strategic oil and gas bearing region of Russia. The battle for resources coupled with the shortening winter season due to climate change both affect the ancient reindeer routes.
Larger cities continue to lure young Nenets to a different lifestyle, with different professions. These changes threaten the Nenets nomadic existence. In spite of it all, the Nenets continue to preserve their culture. Blending sacred traditions with modern conveniences, they are determined to survive through whatever may come.