What is modern living like for people in the Arctic Circle? These native artists will show you.
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Natural Resources Defense Council

It didn't take long for Khadry Okotetto to realize he wasn't cut out for a life in finance.

Born in the remote Siberian tundra, far beyond villages and roads, Khadry didn't learn Russian until he was sent off to boarding school at age 7. His native tongue is that of the Nenets, one of the many indigenous peoples of the Arctic Circle — and barring a brief moment (which now makes him laugh) when he studied banking in college, Khadry has dedicated his life to the traditional music and folklore of his people.


Photo by Asya Malysheva/Circum-Arctic Art Show. Used with permission.


In the Nenet language, Khadry's name means "eternal blizzard." He finds that oddly fitting. "I end up all over, in unexpected places," he told the Circum-Arctic Gallery in Reykjavík. "I love freedom. I love to travel. I love to do what I like." Though he now has a home and studio in Moscow, he's still true to his nomadic roots — often traveling the world to perform and connect with other cultures.

Khadry is just one of over 30 indigenous artists featured in the first-ever international Circum-Arctic Art Show.

Opening on Oct. 15, 2015, at the Gamla Bíó theater in Reykjavík, Iceland, the Circum-Arctic Art Show is a rare opportunity for people to share in the rich cultures of indigenous Arctic people.

Although many of these communities continue to honor their thousands-year-old traditions, they're also constantly adapting to the changes of the modern world, including new technologies and rising temperatures. But no one has ever turned the spotlight on their struggles and experiences in quite the way that the Circum-Arctic Art Show is doing now.

Because let's be honest: Most of us have no idea what modern Arctic life is like.

We probably think of snow huts and fur-lined hoods on burly coats that keep the sub-zero temperatures out. While that's not necessarily inaccurate, it's a totally oversimplified stereotype.

Turns out, there's an incredible range of diversity among indigenous Arctic peoples. And while there are certainly some similarities between them, each individual nation has its own unique language, culture, and history. Sure, you may have heard of the Inuits and maybe the Saami (and now, I guess, the Nenets). But what do you know about the Dolgans or Nganasans? How about the Tlingit?

Here are just a few of the artists whose wonderful work will be displayed at the Circum-Arctic Art Show:

Lucy Nigiyok, Inuit

Born and raised in Canada's Northwest Territories, Lucy Nigiyok learned the craft of sewing and printmaking from her mother — and neither one ever owned a sewing machine.

Mary Ann Penashue, Innu

For more than 20 years, Mary Ann Penashue has used modern-day colors and painting techniques to depict her aboriginal ancestors on canvas. Her grandparents, pictured above, were painters as well, and her work is a way of honoring that tradition.

Zarina Kopyrina, Sakha

Zarina Kopyrina also learned traditional Sakha songs from her grandparents, but it was her own idea to combine the deer-skin rhythms and mouth-harp melodies with electronic drums and special effects. She believes strongly in the shamanistic role of music in her culture, and she's even appeared on several Russian reality shows such as "X-Factor" and "American Fiancé."

Fredrik Prost, Saami

Fredrik Prost first learned traditional Saami handcrafts from a village elder in his northern Sweden village when he was just 15 years old. He quickly came to view these traditions as a means of connecting the past and the present and the people to the land. He considers his intricately detailed artwork to be a lifestyle more than a career and proudly gathers antlers, wood, and other raw materials from the environment around him.

John Sabourin, Dene

Working in both painting and stone carving, John Sabourin's art is firmly rooted in animal life and the mythology of places. The piece above is part of a series called "Dream Invaders," depicting the swirling visages of the animals that visit his dreams and inspire his creative process.

Billy Gauthier, Inuit

Billy Gauthier always had artistic inclinations, but he didn't start carving until he was 18 years old. His work tends to explore spiritual connections with the earth, both in traditional and modern ways — a stone marriage of folkloric demons and the present-day spirits of alcohol and the environment.

All of these amazing artists live at the intersection of tradition and the ever-changing world of today.

As they continue to hone their craftsmanship, these artists will also be forced to question their connections to their own environment. With so much of their lifestyles steeped in nature and the land, what will it mean when the animals they depict are gone, or when the rising sea levels swallow up the ground beneath them?

The survival of any art form depends on the support of its patrons. But for these indigenous Arctic artists, the survival of their cultures, languages, and lifestyles depend on us as well. So let's demand climate action — before the rest of human culture disappears as well.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
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