Alexei Chunanchar

By Tamara Kula


As a member of one of the smallest nationalities in Russia, Alexei Chunanchar is proudly preserving his Nganasan roots. At only 32, this young, talented artist is already known for his master carvings, primarily of reindeer antlers and woolly mammoth ivory. His best work is housed by the Zolotoi Fond (Golden Fund), in the Taimyr House of People's Culture, where he works in the city of Dudinka.



As a child in the village of Volochanka, he was a keen observer, often sketching the natural world. His drawings of reindeer and hunters were just the beginning; he went on to graduate from the Norilsk College of Art, specializing in decorative folk art. It was there that he mastered carving techniques.

Mammoth ivory holds a special place as a “sign of the north,” says Chunanchar. He also carves reindeer and moose antlers, accenting his pieces with wood, fur, feathers, suede and even metal. Mammoth tusks and bones, being extremely solid, pose challenges for carving but offer great possibilities. More porous antlers are often used for superficial carving. 



Chunanchar's artistic inspiration stems from various sources, often from folklore. Reindeer, so connected to the Nganasan people, figure prominently in legends, and therefore in his work. One legend recounts their origin from the coat of a wild deer; another traces their source to a wild deer bone. Sometimes the material itself prompts his artwork, when the antler or bone inspires a certain image.



He says he doesn't have a favorite piece, instead appreciating them for their different themes, from family life to warrior combat, from hunting to fishing. Two mammoths spend an eternity together, frozen in his piece “Nezhnost” would be cool to get Nganasan names for artwork (meaning tenderness) made from moose antler. A sturgeon's flashing movement is preserved in “Nerest” (spawning), the entire work framed by reindeer antler. “Letnii Stoibishe” (summer camp), made from mammoth tusk, depicts the past way of life, with intricately carved figures including a chum (traditional conical home), sleds, and deer. “Shaman,” carved from mammoth tusk, displays the powerful spiritual realm of the Nganasan.

Chunanchar's artistic talent extends far beyond the realm of physical artwork. He is also active in performing songs and dances, storytelling and playing musical instruments with his folklore group Khendir. Chunanchar is the soloist for this group, singing the folk songs while playing the mouth harp. They perform at festivals not only throughout Russia, but also in Finland and Norway. This group is unique for its dedication to singing Nganasan folk music in their native language and wearing traditional costumes of reindeer skin and dog fur. 



Chunanchar speaks Nganasan as his first language. This is not the case for all people of his culture, where Russian has become the lingua franca. He is passing his cultural traditions along in his own family; he has two children with his wife Valeria, of the Dolgan culture which has long shared the same territory as Nganasans. Their daughter, 10, already attends art school and performs on the mouth harp with her father. Their son, 5, is eager to participate as soon as he gets older. Their children no doubt have a full picture of their heritage.



While the Nganasan culture has undergone significant lifestyle changes this century, Chunanchar is a voice of optimism for his culture. Even with the modern world all around us, he says, the feeling of a quiet village, of walking or hunting or fishing in nature – that inspiration is no less attainable today than it was in centuries past.