The Siberian art expeditions to the Sel’Kupy tribes in the 1910s & 20s : A. G. Vargin.

Golova shchuki. Sel’kupy. 1920.

Next to nothing is known about the artist A. G. Vargin. What we do have goes like this; three well-known Krasnoiarsk artists, Dmitri Innokent’evich Karatanov, Andrei Prokofievich Lekarenko and our man A. G. Vargin went on several expeditions into Siberia during the 1910s and 1920s. Of Karatanov and Lekarenko there is just a little data, housed at 2 Russian institiutions with typically long names; the V. I. Surikov Museum of Art in Krasnoiarsk and the Krasnoiarsk Krai Museum of Regional History and Folklife.

Of Vargin there is this: he made 110 drawings during a trip to Siberia with an A. A. Savel’ev and these are his only known and surviving works.

That’s it. Well almost. Another thing we can know for sure from his work with the Selkups people is that A. G. Vargin had deep interest, understanding and respect for the indigenous culture he was documenting – as did Karatanov and Lekarenko. Vargin gives us an intimate and intricate, item by item breakdown of the Sel’kupy or Selkups tribe in his work; their homes, their clothing, their rituals, their lifestyle.

The Selkups originated in the basin of the great Ob River, a cross breed mixture between the aboriginal Yeniseian peoples and Samovedics from the Sayan mountains early in the first millennium.  They were fine for the first thousand years. They thrived. They survived the Mongol hordes who came in the 13th century and subjugated them. Around 1628, the Russians came. They conquered the area and the Selkups were subjugated once more. The Selkups tried an uprising against Russian rule but were beaten by the gun, easily defeated.

By the 17th century, some Selkups relocated up north to live alongside the Taz & Turukhan rivers. They hunted, fished and bred reindeer. The Russians wouldn’t let them be. A century later Russian settlers to the area began Russians hunting the Selkups reindeer which made breeding reindeer next to impossible. The Russians attempted to convert the Selkups to Christianity and to Russian-ise them. The Selkups clung tightly, hung on to their complex ancient rituals and customs. Their identity. 

When A. G. Vargin arrived in 1920 it was well into the Soviet Period. The Selkups were being systematically forced to adopt a more settled and less nomadic lifestyle and their traditional culture had already suffered a severe decline. The Selkups have been facing an ongoing slow death – a cultural extinction by assimilation from Russian culture – ever since. Vargin, with his fellow artists Karatanov and Lekarenko were recording a dying culture.

It’s an old story. Today they continue to suffer – from racial discrimination, unemployment, addiction and alcoholism.

The work of Vargin, Karatanov and Lekarenko is all that remains of an ancient people, their culture and their time and place on the planet.

Fish traps in a stream.

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