- Nation: Dolgans
By Tamara Kula
Photos courtesy of Anna Varaksina
Vasiliy Batagai dedicates his life to the preservation and celebration of indigenous culture – not only of his own Dolgan roots, but of all humanity. As chief curator, Batagai is perfectly placed to pursue his passion at the Taymyr House of People's Art in Dudinka, the administrative center of the Taimyr Dolgano-Nenets District.
Batagai was born in 1978 in Kresty, a village in the Khatanga region. His mother Svetlana Eliseevna is of Dolgan origin. His father Ivan Nikolaevich is Sakha, born in Taymyr. Coming from a family of reindeer herders, Batagai has a foundation that many city-born indigenous people lack. Even now, living in Dudinka, he prefers the quiet tranquility that only the tundra can provide. Life in a city is altogether different, he says: “a completely different planet.”
With one sister in Taimyr's northernmost village of Syndassko, another sister in Novorybnoe, and yet another sister who lives the traditional nomadic lifestyle in Popigae, Batagai has access to both of these worlds.
His childhood love of drawing and nature quickly put him on the path toward preserving culture through art. After graduating from the Norilsk College of Art in 2000 with a degree in decorative, applied, and folk art, he started as a master carver for the district center. In 2002, he became the head of the department of decorative and applied art at the Khatanga Center of People's Art.
He first joined the Taimyr House of People's Art in 2008, and after only one year, became its chief curator. In this role, he flourishes – preserving collections, traveling for ethnographic research, creating booklets and documentaries, leading tours through the Taimyr House, and organizing seminars, master classes, and youth lessons in art and indigenous culture. He is a native speaker of the Dolgan language and an avid collector of ornamental and national clothing and tools.
Media and Themes
Batagai is a master of many media. He carves mammoth and reindeer bone as well as wood, paints watercolor scenes of epic Dolgan heroes, and creates intricate designs with reindeer suede, fur, stitching, and beads. Of all the material he works with, the soft and pliable suede is his favorite. The ancient art of creating clothing, shoes, and costumes is very much a part of Dolgan culture. His ideas, like his materials, come from nature. Pictures of old heroes from stories inspire him in his projects.
Art is about personal and spiritual awareness, a never-ending process of growth, Batagai says. He cites Boris Molchanov as the artist who most influenced him. Born on the tundra in 1938, Molchanov went on to study art in Norilsk, eventually earning a place in the USSR's Council of Artists in 1968. His media included suede, paint, metal, leather, bone, and decorative stitching.
Modest about his own talents, Batagai focuses on learning as much as he can about the colorful variety of traditional expressions of culture. Participating in local, regional, national and international festivals gives him the chance to connect with others in a rich exchange of ideas. People from many cultures unite to see new crafts, to make contacts, to offer advice as well as take away ideas that they wish to use. This is what Batagai does, returning home with new insights to share with his team at the Taimyr House.
Sharing the Passion
This open atmosphere of sharing is crucial to keeping ancient cultures alive. As older generations gradually leave this earth, Batagai says the most important goal is to pass these cultural traditions to the youth. And they are listening. Young people are interested in their history of creativity and how they can in turn adapt it to their world – from sculpting, drawing, and sewing to dancing and folkloric writing and film. “Indigenous people are very artistic, very capable,” Batagai said. For young people, he says, “The most important thing is to guide them on the correct path.”
Batagai's future plans hinge on his bottomless appetite for information. After finishing the institute next year, he would like to take a little time to relax, and then delve into more cultural programs. He already has contacts in Finland and France with similar goals of preserving indigenous life, through books, film, folklore and other projects.
Life as an Artist
Preserving culture is a difficult but worthy task. Batagai warns that a weak culture can easily disappear; it's imperative that members of society hold tightly to their heritage. “It's not only in the hands of the leadership. It's in the hands of every person, every child,” he said.
Artistic expression, unique to humans, is born from a desire to go beyond simply survival. In this sense artists transcend petty differences and reach to the core of what it means to be human. “We are all different – different cultures, from different regions, with different spiritualities. But we are all people,” Batagai said. “Maybe you don't understand a person, but you understand his inner humanity.”