In the arctic tundra of Russia, there is a boarding school for the Nenets, the nomadic northern indigenous people.
A School for Nenets (2014) is a fascinating documentary project by a Japanese photographer Ikuru Kuwajima, who photographed a boarding school nearby Vorkuta, Russia that serves the community of the nomadic indigenous people of northern Russia – the Nenets.
In the arctic tundra of Russia, there is a boarding school for the Nenets, the nomadic northern indigenous people. The children study and live there to receive formal education from autumn to spring. From April to September, they are with their families and reindeers in the middle of the tundra, staying in the traditional mobile tents called Chum.
The boarding school is located near the city of Vorkuta. The Nenets around the city, about 150 km south of the Kara Sea of the Arctic Ocean, have been more isolated than the Nenets in other regions, where the population was more assimilated to the mainstream society during the Soviet era.
For the children, the immediate transition to the settlers’ lifestyle is daunting. To ease the transition issues, this boarding school makes some humane efforts: it decorates the interior with a lot of ethnic-themed things including even mini-Chums in order to make them feel comfortable and, at the same time, to remind them of their roots embedded to the tundra.
[S]chooling was informally done in the tundra, where [the Nenets children] mostly learnt how to survive in the freezing climate with a small number of their tribe members. However, the globalisation reached even the tundra in the past few decades, inevitably increasing the contacts between the nomadic Nenets and the settlers, which caused changes in the lifestyle and mindsets of the Nenets. Consequently, more and more parents in the tundra also began to see the needs for their children to get education including writing and reading in Russian, as well as their own language.
After the boarding school, some children continue education in cities and get fully integrated into the modern Russian society; however, the majority of them still go back to the freezing tundra to continue their nomadic life.
Text by Ikuru Kuwajima
School for the Nenets is a unique story told through Kuwajima’s photographs and other visual material such as children’s drawings or family photographs belonging to the Nenets whose children he photographed. Among the pictures taken by Kuwajima, there are studio-style portraits of children, often photographed wearing traditional clothing or holding ethnic accessories. While these portraits may appear ‘arty’ (after all, they’re posed, children often stand against a white background, etc.), they still give us plenty of information about the kids and the school itself. Kuwajima also chose to document objects belonging to children, including tiny modelling-clay reindeer figurines, a sledge or a shoe made of reindeer’s fur. Finally, there are also few images of the school itself, helping to create the full picture. The multi-layered character of School for the Nenets really helps to convey this fascinating story. We get to see the boarding school from the outside, as if we were just passing by. But then we enter and meet the children. We see what they play with and what they draw. Eventually we get to see their families and snippets of what their lives look like outside the school term.
Kuwajima published this project as a book in 2015. Tundra Kids features ethnic-style patterns on the cover, many of which are reminiscent of reindeer’s antlers. When you inspect the book closer, you realise it’s actually a foldable book, which nicely matches the ‘school theme’. Inside there are portraits, images of toys and accessories, children’s drawings, and archival family photographs. You can purchase the book on the publisher’s site (Schlebrugge.Editor). A special limited edition (including 2 prints) is available in the online bookshop of the Anzenberger Gallery.
* * *
After growing up in Japan and studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia for 4 years, Ikuru Kuwajima has been living and photographing in several Eastern European and Central Asian countries – Romania, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia. He extensively covered and travelled around Central Asia in the past three years and continues to live and photograph in the post-Soviet countries. He’s fluent in Japanese, Russian and English.