</Russian Art Beyond the Beaten Track: Yakutia>
author: ODRA and Elena Vasileva

ODRA launches a series of texts on contemporary art and culture in Russian regions. In recent years, contemporary art has been blossoming far beyond Moscow and St.Petersburg as many local contemporary art centers have been opened, museum tourism has been growing.

In this series of texts, we will explore cultural, historical and geographical peculiarities of the regions where contemporary art is evolving, and we believe that it is important to highlight artists, curators and institutions, who contributed to creating favorable conditions for local culture to burgeon.


In the text titled ‘The National Identity,’ ODRA, together Elena Vasileva, the curator of the exhibition projects at the Gagarin Center for Culture and Contemporary Art in Yakutsk, and art historian Yana Andriesh, explores Yakutia's culture and the context in which it has been actively developing in recent years.

Yakutia, also known as Sakha, is located in the Russian Far East, along the Arctic Ocean. Slightly bigger than the territory of Argentina, Russia’s federal republic of Sakha is inhabited by less than a million people. The remote region is known for the challenging weather conditions and low temperatures: the average in July is +20°C and -39°C in January. Sakha is a home to many groups of indigenous people, who over the centuries have managed to preserve their cultural identity and languages.

photo from Elena Vasileva's personal archive

The Yakut language is an official language of the republic alongside Russian, while smaller groups speak Even, Evenki and the Yukaghir languages, all of them endangered. These are the starting points for a deeper dive into the diverse contemporary art of this remote region.

Expert in Yakut contemporary art Elena Vasileva has told ODRA that Yakut contemporary art is defined by integrality and high-context culture, interpretation of the peculiarities of the territory and its meanings. In this regard, we can distinguish artistic self-organizations and festivals working with the context of the territory as well as theater and cinema exploring national identity.

Yakutia’s contemporary art scene is a phenomenon that has arisen on the crossroads of the experimental art of young artists of the late 80-90s, the authors who started their careers in the 2000s, when Russian contemporary art institutions and festivals were in the process of emerging along with the representatives of an absolutely new generation of artists. Today, all these generations are actively interacting and creating joint projects that can be called modern Yakut art.

When talking about different artistic practices of Yakutia, we should start with one of the most prominent, cinematography. The Yakut cinema has managed to retain local national identity while being relevant in the context of the contemporary socio-cultural agenda. It did not immediately succeed in winning Russian distribution, but persistence and their unique authenticity have paved the way to the big world of cinema, both to Russian and international film festivals. For example, the film ‘Scarecrow’ (2020) made by Yakut director Dmitry Davidov in the Yakut language, took the main prize of the 31st Kinotavr Film Festival in Sochi, Russia, the movie ‘The Kingbird’ (2018) by Eduard Novikov won a prize of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI).

Some journalists and film critics have even described the phenomenon of Yakut cinema as ‘Sakhawood’, derived from Hollywood, but it remains to be seen whether in the local film industry will solidify its place in the big world of cinema long-term.
‘The King Bird' is a drama about an elderly couple living in remote taiga. One day, an eagle flies into their house and changes their life. The film won awards at the 2018 Montreal Film Festival, the Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) and the Asian World Film Festival.

'The King Bird', director Eduard Novikov, 2018
photo from the filming of 'My Killer' movie (Nation magazine)

Crew at the Hollywood premiere,
photo: Art Doidu Film Company
The American premiere of 'My Killer' by Costas Marzaan's took place at the Arclight Cinemas as part of the Los Angeles International Asian Film Festival in 2016.


According to Elena Vasileva, the artistic community of Yakutia as a whole responds quite subtly to the problems and challenges of contemporary global society. It manifests itself in comprehension of personal involvement in global processes through connection with local history and in reinterpretation of national culture.

However, in Yakut contemporary art there are practically no activist statements of political nature, protest and actionism. The postcolonial narrative is expressed implicitly, these topics are discussed very rarely. Not so long ago, it began to emerge as one of the themes of reflection, and at times in the forms of self-colonization and even self-exoticization.

Yakutia’s art market is severely underdeveloped and, as a consequence, commercial art is practically non-existent, authors work more for themselves, for self-identification, for the sake reflection on severe new upheavals and conditions, as if seeking to build their meaningful landscape in the complex context of the 'common'.

Among the important events of the Yakut contemporary art are the the opening of the Gagarin Center for Culture and Contemporary Art, reconstruction of workshops in the historical building 'House of Artists' and creation of a branch of the National Art Museum of the RS (Ya), art residency TEG, the Art Publish school community initiative and launch of Ayarkut Contemporary Art Support Fund.

The Ayrakut Foundation has been a notable trailblazer of local art on the federal and international level. The foundation, based in Yakutsk, was established by Arsen Tomsky, a successful tech entrepreneur and investor. In 2021, the Ayrakut held an exhibition of works by six female artists at Moscow’s Blazar art fair, which is one of the most prominent contemporary art events in Russia.

Gagarin Center for Culture and Contemporary Art, photo: культура.рф website

Nadezhda Komissarova creates textiles featuringYakut motifs, transporting traditional culture into contemporary time and space. The motifs take their origin in the drawing and bone carving of Sakha people.
The themes and subjects of contemporary Yakut art explore local culture and mythology as motifs, but appeal to current themes in art such as post-pandemic, climate change and feminism. At the Blazar art fair in 2021, six female artists presented their works curated by Yulia Yusma. Selena Shestakova uses the joyful colors of her childhood memories which express a short period of warm summer as opposed to white and freezing winters.

Selena Shestakova

For Ien Sur, her second pregnancy and giving birth to a child became the point of self-realization as an artist. Hence, she envisioned and embroidered “Mutter”, the work that refers to motherhood and female physicality. Another side of her artistic personality is surrealism, with its mystery and absurd connections within the work. The surrealism in Ien Sur’s artworks coexists with the mythology of the Sakha people. In the work “the Eye of the River” the artist gives life to the much venerated spirit of a Yakut river.

Nadezhda Komissarova
Ien Sur

Elena Vasileva also told ODRA about contemporary art in Yakutia:

In the last decade, a large number of contemporary art festivals have been created, in fact, it was the era of shows. Now comes the time for research projects, embedding the experience of the last two decades of integration into the international and all-Russian art community, the experience of research programs and participation in Russian and foreign residencies of our authors and researchers.

Along with such festival projects as the Biennial of Contemporary Art (NHM RS (Ya) since 2010), the Arctic Biennial (Laboratory of Integrated Geocultural Research of the Arctic, 2016) and the Arctic Triennial (Arctic State Institute of Culture and Art since 2018), there are also such festival projects as the Contemporary Art Biennial (NCHM RS (Ya) since 2018), the festival of contemporary culture 'Summer' (Center of competence 'Summer', since 2018), the International Yakutsk Film Festival, in general the rapidly developing fields of film and theater, manifest 'grassroots' initiatives, which for me are of the greatest interest.

They all appear as impulses based on an intuitive powerful need for creative mutual exchange in narrow artistic community of artists, architects, film directors, actors, theaters, musicians, and writers.

The last 3-4 years are marked by the emergence of specialized media projects 'Tymnyy', 'Culture of Yakutia' (as well as an event initiative related to the folk epic "Olonkho Evenings"), art groups ArtBox, ArtLab, Archetype are already developing in a very friendly atmosphere.


There are more names and personalities among Yakut contemporary artists and activists who are worth knowing:
Mikhail Starostin, artist
ArtBox Group, 'Nomad' exhibition. Curator Anku Gasich. The exhibition took place in different spaces.
#ArtBox, 2017, photo: Ysia

The Road Home, 1997

Installation 'Mutation', 2020

Art lab research and communication project, curated by Juliana Semenova
Ustiniya Dogordurova-Prokopyeva, artist
Land art project 'Bihik' of the creative group Archetype

Energy of youth

Alexander Innokentyev, artist
photos are provided by Elena Vasileva

Ien Sur, artist
Authors living outside the Republic:
Ekaterina Egorova
Temirey Sutakov
Dunya Zakharova
Anya Innokenteva-Yenut
Avatar of the group 'кыһыҥҥы ойуур'

Media exhibition 'I am (not) afraid', Museum complex 'My History', Union of Artists of Yakutia, 2022

Dunya Zakharova, Face, 2016

Dunya Zakharova, Untitled, 2016

Dunya Zakharova, Untitled, 2015,
pics from Osnova gallery

photos are provided by Elena Vasileva