At the most easterly point of Siberia, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska, lies the village of Uelen in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug. The district is more than 17 times the size of Switzerland and has 50,000 inhabitants.
The area around Uelen has been populated for several thousand years. This is where the Yupik and Chukchi peoples meet. The Yupik live on both sides of the Bering Strait. Between 1865 and 1867 the Western Union Telegraph Expedition attempted to establish a telegraph connection from San Francisco to Moscow.
The Swiss artist Trautmann Grob was there and left behind some drawings from Alaska and Siberia, which are now in the St. Gallen Historical and Ethnological Museum.
More than 20 years later, the Swedish polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld collected more than 1,100 Chukchi artefacts, including more than 400 ivory figures, during a long winter stay on the Vega expedition from 1878 to 1879 a little further west. They are now in the Etnografiska museet in Stockholm. Because the numerous small villages in Eastern Siberia were viewed by the Soviet Union as uneconomical in the 1950s, their inhabitants were moved to various larger towns, one of which was Uelen. A workshop of ivory carvers had developed here as early as the 1920s and has been institutionalised since 1931. For several decades, the carvings were an important source of income.
Today the hamlet has around 750 residents and is facing new challenges. Walrus tusk is a by-product of subsistence hunting by the residents of Uelen. Because of the Washington Convention on the Conservation of Species of 1973, the international trade in walrus ivory was gradually restricted and ultimately came to a practical standstill. Alternatives had to be looked for. Several workshops took place with participants from both sides of the Bering Strait.
In 2004 the Canadian artist and printer Paul Machnik traveled from Montreal to Uelen and led a workshop there. Twelve artists from Uelen made 20 prints, which were printed in limited editions in Montreal. Each motif was published in an edition of 30 pieces, which were signed and numbered by hand, and in some cases also titled. Analogue to the Inuit printing workshops.
The aim was to establish such a printing workshop in Uelen as well. For various reasons this has not yet happened. The 20 prints from 2004 remained. The motifs were inspired by the rich mythological tradition, everyday life and local history. The style is based very closely on the walrus tusk carvings. Well recognisable in a print by the artist Lubov Eynes, which depicts the legend of the Seal Woman.
The artist Sergei Nikitin created a walrus tusk figure of the walrus woman in 2000. In addition to the hunt for seals, walruses and whales, reindeer herding is also an important nutritional factor. Thus there are several prints that reflect this. Stanislav Il’key depicts the work with the reindeer in two prints (“Summer” and “Autumn”).
Lubov Eines produced not only prints with mythological content but also prints depicting hunting. The exhibition: “Arctic: Culture and Climate” at the British Museum showed a few of these prints from Uelen, which came to London on loan from the Anchorage Museum in Alaska. Museum Cerny owns several complete sets of the series as well as proofs that were printed in advance.
Uelen is ready. Artists and machines are on site. But it needs an initial spark. An international project is currently devoted to the Chukchi collections in museums around the world. It is hoped that such a project will provide Uelen with inspiration to open up an international market for arts and crafts lost due to the ban on ivory trade.
Martin Schultz, Museum Cerny / Translation by Martha Cerny