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Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends

26 January 2014

Meet Minsalim Nimergazeev, orphan turned master craftsman from historic Tobolsk.

'Sometimes we reject the orders. We will not make a naked figure or a skull, we would like our art to be warm. The bone is white which symbolizes purity,  and we want our works to bring purity and happiness'. Picture: Kate Baklitskaya, Go East

'The people of the far north say I'm Mansy, the Japanese say I'm from Kyusyu, Yakuts showed me a village where my relatives must have lived, and the Khazakhs beat me 4 times because I do not speak their native language. In Europe I'm just Russian for everyone.'

Minsalim, 63, may not know his true family origins but he calls himself a Siberian - because Siberians are the those who help each other. His workshop is his house and is located right in the heart of Tobolsk. It is always open to visitors, whom the welcoming artist is glad to treat with a cup of tea and some ancient legends and stories, which also inspire his craftsmanship.

The wood used for the base of his tiny statues can be sent from Africa yet the statue itself shows an ancient spirit of the northern peoples of Siberia. That's the way with all Minsalim's art work: they blend novelty and ancient ethnical legends.

Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends

Opposite sides - ivory Vladimir Lenin and Vladimir Putin by a tree of time. Picture: Kate Baklitskaya, Go East

Elk antlers, mammoth tusk and some animal bones - theses are the materials used by Minsalim. Asked why he became an ivory artist he jokes : 'I wanted to eat badly. At that time everyone was doing bone carving here. 

'It was like a hobby for many as mammoth tusk could be found everywhere. You could go to the river and find one on the bank. So, since ancient times, people used bones and tusks to create household items.'

Local people treated the mammoth tusk with great respect. Mansy tribes believed that it was the claws of Menkva - an evil giant, half human half animal.

'If you look at Siberia from space you can see the footsteps of Menkva - these are lakes now,' said Minsalim. 'They were big and hairy, but didn't have any purpose in life and just wondered around Siberia and eventually got tired and lay down to sleep. They slept and with time turned into mountains - which nowadays we know as the Urals.

'The shamans - who could glimpse into other worlds - warned people that if you disturb Menkvas they might come back to life and get angry. But the Russians didn't believe in the legends and began ivory carving.'

Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends


Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends

'The shamans - who could glimpse into other worlds - warned people that if you disturb Menkvas they might come back to life and get angry. But the Russians didn't believe in the legends and began ivory carving'. Pictures: Kate Baklitskaya, Go East

Minsalim, being an orphan, never got a proper education, but he jokes that it saved him from so called masterpiece illness. 

'You see, the proper artists expect every piece they create to become a masterpiece and get very disappointed when it doesn't happen. As for me I never studied to be an artist, I just did what I like and this is how I learned it. I enjoyed the process of giving the new life to the legends. It's easy and simple when the person does what he likes and enjoys it. And this creates a healthy mood. 

'Otherwise the artist forgets the purpose of his craft, and thinking only about creating something that can amaze people, he forgets to feel his art with his soul. And money is not nearly as important as being in harmony with what you do.'

After leaving  the orphanage at the age of 17, Minsalim went to work in Tobolsk bone carving factory, from where he was laid off in 1984 as a person 'with no talent'.

But he didn't give up and continued working at home, teaching his sons and mastering the skills. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Minsalim opened his workshop which grew into a family business.

'Now the craft became personalised in the way it used to be. During Soviet times, everyone worked at the factory and the art didn't have a soul. 

'I like dynasties of craft workers. You can expect the steady growth of some art only with the presence of dynasties and the fact that they have started appearing again, with one generation passing on its skills to the next. 

'Ivory carving is an old Russian craft and even Peter the Great liked carving,' Minsalim said. 'He had a couple of workshops where he used to come from time to time. And of course he protected this craft and patronised the craftsmen.'

Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends

Peter the Great meeting a shaman. Picture: Kate Baklitskaya, Go East

Minsalim's workshop, where he works with his wife, two sons and sister-in-law, creates many large ivory carving pieces for exhibitions - and to order.

They also make many smaller souvenirs, each of them being a piece of art that deserves a place in the museum.

'I can't say we have a lot of orders as ivory carving is sort of luxury. But we have smaller souvenir works and people like them. When we go to Europe, people buy works from Siberia, from the North, as it's still seen as exotic. Plus all our works have a positive meaning, and incorporate positive symbols.

'Sometimes we reject the orders. We will not make a naked figure or a skull, we would like our art to be warm. The bone is white which symbolizes purity,  and we want our works to bring purity and happiness'.

Being a philosopher seems to be in Mensalim's blood. He is not in a hurry and finds time to sit down and think about the past when life was slower and people were happier. 

'The legends possess a great deal of wisdom, and by forgetting them we loose a lot,' he said. 'One legend is like one lesson and ancient people took time to learn them. There's no need to explain them or shorten them. But modern life speeds up and man tries to save time a bit here and there, leaving no time for fairy tales. 

'I wouldn't say that globalisation is a bad thing but the ancestors warned us: do not be in a hurry to live. In this hurry many loose the sense of life.'

Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends


Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends


Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends


Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends


Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends

Minsalim inside his studio and by his house in Tobolsk, Siberia. Picture: Kate Baklitskaya, Go East

Minsalim shows a small statue of a heavenly cat, which was made by his wife Irina. 

'The Gods once created humans. Not that they did a bad job, but creating humans they were in a hurry and left them because they had some more important things to do and later forgot about them. When they remembered about their creations, they saw that humans were incapable of doing anything. 

'The Gods took pity on them and told the Cat: 'Go and teach them everything'. But there was one condition - added the Gods - which was that the Cat shouldn't talk. So the Cat went to the humans and showed them with her own example how to build houses and to make plates, and how to cut wood. 

'She taught them everything and being proud of herself went back to the Gods. As she was passing by the human creations, she couldn't help admiring how well  they they built the houses and how beautiful were the plates and how easily were they cutting the wood. And the Cat said 'Ah' with admiration and right then the Gods told the Cat to stay with us, having broken the no talking rule'.

Exotic ivory carving from Siberia, giving new life to old legends

'A statue of a heavenly cat and a shaman, made by Minsalim's wife Irina'. Picture: Kate Baklitskaya, Go East

When you meet Minsalim, you keep wondering what is more beautiful: his miniature pieces of art or his long ancient legends that are hiding in every creation? 

During an exhibition in Berlin several years ago, an elderly woman fell in love with the amazing snow white statues. She asked the master how old was he to which Minsalim answered - 'hundred years old'. The lady could not believe that someone could look that good for that age. 

'That's because I drink Russian vodka made with Siberian spring water', explained the artist, smiling. The old lady thought for a second and ordered two vodka shots and asked to have a drink for brotherhood and seal it with a kiss. At the same time, she admitted that the last time she drunk strong alcohol was 32 years ago. 

Until the last day of the exhibition, she came to Minsalim to take a 'brotherhood' shots with him. 'Her eyes started shining brighter and she started looking younger, but my moustache itched from all the kissing'.

Minslaim knows how to amaze whether it is with his works or his stories. And he does it without even trying. 

Comments (2)

nicely done, thank you Kate Bakliyskaya
Jamie, Illinois
28/01/2014 13:18
3
0
heart-warming story with some very wise words about not hurrying to live, and good pictures of beautiful works.
Ieva , Lithuania, Kaunas
26/01/2014 21:00
6
0
1

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