Victor and Inna Yadne

When you find your calling, you must do it – no matter what.  This is the motto for Victor and Inna Yadne. They are a husband and wife team of Nenets artists who, through their talents, preserve their people's traditions. Supporting each other for 20 years, their task is bittersweet – they are the only two remaining indigenous artists of their caliber in the Yamalo-Nenets region of northwest Siberia.



Describing their career as a “hungry profession,” Victor says it is not easy to get by as an artist. He admits that it would have been more convenient to be a teacher, or perhaps an electrician like his late father. Everything they make, they must sell to support themselves. And yet, they wouldn't have it any other way. “We're not afraid of hardship,” says Inna. Victor adds, “We know why we're here. It can't be otherwise.” Victor and Inna both come from the old Nenets clans. Inna was born in a small settlement, therefore removed from traditional nomadic lifestyle; Victor, however, spent his childhood years on the tundra, giving him perspective into his roots. Victor, born in 1971, witnessed the gradual decline of traditional ways of Nenets life as well as their ancient rituals and beliefs. 



Growing up without the distractions of modern day allowed Victor to teach himself drawing and singing. He now calls on his childhood memories to guide his artwork. Children often accompanied their parents to collect firewood or hitched their little sledge to dogs for a playful ride. In one of his pieces, the joy of sledding shines forth from a little boy seated in front of his sister, who is dressed in a traditional yagushke. The intimate relationship with reindeer is unmistakable in his piece “Tesavei Nacheki” (boy with deer), the animal held in a tight embrace by a smiling child. This carving recalls how children would be the ones to raise calves abandoned on the tundra, creating a bond for life.



Victor fondly recalls a favorite legend, told by his grandmother when he was just three years old. A small boy, left alone by a father who has gone hunting and a mother who has gone to gather firewood, is stolen by a Yeti. The father is faced with the task of retrieving the boy, creeping into the cave when the snow people are asleep. He believes this tale was meant to caution children from wandering far from home. He himself, however, often walked alone in the tundra. Victor Yadne learned his craft in Salekhard College for Culture and Arts. His surname means “walking forward,” and true to his name, Victor has been able to carry forward as an independent artist.  In 2001 Victor was honored with a title of the People’s Master of Russia. 



Inna’s maiden name is Khudi, which means “duck’s breastbone”, and her father’s name is Yeyliu, “loving life.” With degrees in teaching and accounting, Inna gradually learned the craft by observing Victor’s work. Although she humbly insists that she is only an assistant to her husband, today she is an expert carver of traditional Nenets ornaments. Together, they have participated in dozens of exhibitions, not only in their own city of Salekhard, but also in Moscow, Bern and Beijing.



“I never thought I would carve and draw,” she said. Working together – often late into the night – makes the time pass quickly and enjoyably, and it was a logical solution to the problems of preparing for exhibitions and finishing large orders on time. Victor and Inna work with a variety of materials, including reindeer antlers, wood and metal. However, mammoth tusk is the “royal” material, as Victor calls it. Though difficult and capricious, it best portrays the intricate designs that recount their people’s past. They purchase mammoth tusks from reindeer herders, always seeking the best ivory.



Victor and Inna, like many Nenets, believe that the spirits are all around them. Victor played his shamanic drum after his younger son was born. In Victor’s workshop there is a reindeer skull that he picked up at a sacred place in the tundra. 



It takes the artists a week to make the smaller objects: pendants and other jewelry. Bigger art works can take up to a year. Victor creates statues of dancing Shamans, hunters in a mortal fight with polar bears, and Spirits rising from the snowy planes. Statues, traditional Nenets belts and knives have been sent to a number of private collections and museums around the world, including Jacques Chirac’s Musée du Septennat.



Through their artwork, Victor and Inna hold tight to their roots. They both speak their Nenets language, which is not common except in the small villages. The changing times can be seen in their own three children: their oldest understands the language, while their youngest does not. Young people migrate toward the cities to learn the new professions, while those who know how to create with their hands grow few in number. Times are tough now, and they see the burden of keeping up with expenses taking its toll. Many families are so focused on survival that the feeling of community is easily lost. Yet, through art, Inna finds a way to share what matters most: “People's delight and surprise provide a reason for making artwork – to give people happiness.”