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Book Review: Tundra Kids


Book Review Tundra Kids By Ikuru Kuwajima Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson Many traditional and indigenous populations have seen a sharp decline in the young people who choose to maintain ancestral ways into adulthood. This is cause for concern, as languages, spiritual inheritance and the other traditions fail to be preserved through the act of continued practice; Ikuru Kuwajima’s Tundra Kids explores a culture that is experiencing the reverse.

Tundra KidsBy Ikuru KuwajimaSchlebrugge Editor, 2016.
 
Tundra Kids
Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson

Tundra Kids.
Photographs by Ikuru Kuwajima.
Schlebrugge Editor, Vienna, Austria, 2016. In German, English, Nenets. 84 pp., color illustrations, 16x16x1¼".


Many traditional and indigenous populations have seen a sharp decline in the young people who choose to maintain ancestral ways into adulthood. This is cause for concern, as languages, spiritual inheritance and the other traditions fail to be preserved through the act of continued practice; Ikuru Kuwajima’s Tundra Kids explores a culture that is experiencing the reverse.

The Nenets, the subject of the book, are an indigenous people of Russia that inhabit the northern regions, living above the Arctic Circle. They occupy and are the largest population of peoples living in the Russian federal state of Yamalia. There are two major derivations in the Nenet language, which helps to illuminate the two major categories of Nenet people, Tundra Nenet and Forest Nenet. Kuwajima’s book focuses on a group of Tundra Nenet speaking children, their education and their cultural identity.

Tundra KidsBy Ikuru KuwajimaSchlebrugge Editor, 2016.

Tundra Kids is presented as an accordion-fold book; one side of the pages displays the children through photographs in their classroom while the opposite side shows their artworks and select photographs of the children with their families in their home environment.

The flow of Tundra Kids follows a day at school with them. The book shares a story with its reader (a mythological tale of the Nenet religion) and then there is a show-and-tell followed by crafts (taking the form of the children’s color drawings). The effect of this presentation is immediate; when one engages with Tundra Kids, one feels as though they have been brought into the world of these children, not through the agency of the photographer and words, but rather via the children themselves who in every photograph and illustration seem eager to share themselves and their cultural identity.

Tundra KidsBy Ikuru KuwajimaSchlebrugge Editor, 2016.
Tundra KidsBy Ikuru KuwajimaSchlebrugge Editor, 2016.

The show-and-tell sections include a revealing selection of traditional Nenet objects: chums (Nenet yurts), clothing, tiny sculptural pieces representing dog driven sleds and regional animals (reminiscent of Japanese netsuke), antlers and sleds dominate the objects that the children share with Kuwajima and his camera. On the flip side of this section is the children’s artwork, which deepens their ability to share their culture with us. The same items dominate the artwork as their show-and-tell with one notable exception: in their illustrations there are many representations of snowmobiles, airplanes and helicopters (a helicopter takes the children to school for the season of their education and returns them to the far north and their families in the off-months). What is unique about this fact is how these vehicles seem to prevail not due to their frequency in the children’s lives, but rather their obscurity.

Tundra KidsBy Ikuru KuwajimaSchlebrugge Editor, 2016.

Tundra Kids feels less like a photobook and more like a moving sociological examination of largely unknown peoples. It is not a photobook proper — and it’s not just the children’s illustrations (which make up about half the content) that make this so, it is the fact that the book exceeds any label. Tundra Kids is more than a photobook, more than an artbook, more than a sociological work — it is a fantastic examination of humanity, culture, children and love, but not sappy cartoon-eyed love. It is the deep resonate love of these children for their culture, their land and its bounty, their love for each other and the lives they live.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

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CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where is manager of photo-eye Bookstore. Aside from this he is a writer for the Meow Wolf art collective and book critic for The CFile Foundation. His first book of poetry, &luckier, will be released by the University of Colorado in November 2016.

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