Heirlooms are meaningful keepsakes handed down through the generations to preserve family history as well as fond memories. As a little girl I remember rooting through my grandmother’s jewelry box to discover remarkable treasures. After donning a silver locket necklace, cameo brooch, jade beaded bracelet and chunky clip-on earrings, I felt like a queen! These family jewels were deemed precious, not for their monetary value, but for the countless personal stories and memories «tucked away» within each prized possession.
Inger Blix Kvammen’s neckpieces are reminiscent of such heirlooms. Her artworks serve as a platform to share stories about cultural exchanges from her avid travels. Tundra Archives is a series of wearable sculptures combined with photos documenting trips to Northwestern Russia, and specifically her visits to Cape Kanin in 2008 and 2014. Each neckpiece portrays a story about Blix Kvammen’s encounters with the Nenets, the nomadic reindeer-herding peoples of north Siberia. On one journey Blix Kvammen travelled by helicopter four hours north of Archangel, Russia. In the following she describes her approach to the village of Nes:
We flew over vast areas of dense forest before we approached the tundra. Along the way we saw several bears playing in the woods. Out on the tundra the vegetation formed circles in different shades of red, green, yellow, orange and brown. We saw traces of human activity here and there, but it was mostly a desolate landscape with low vegetation.
The artist stayed with a reindeer-herding group called Brigade Five. «Brigade» is a Soviet term used by the Nenets to describe their reindeer herding groups. Each brigade includes about 40 individuals. In 2008 there were twenty brigades living in Cape Kanin. The nomadic families typically remain in one location for three weeks and then drift to a new grazing area. Although it was September, before the onset of winter, when the artist visited the Nenets, she described the tent-stay as the coldest experience of her life. She noted that the warmth of the people outweighed braving the cold.
Each of Blix Kvammen’s neckpieces consists of a substantial mesh of dark oxidized silver. Select pieces are made up of numerous crocheted strands or closely linked crocheted spheres, while other pieces are layered knitted segments, joining together to form large exquisite neckbands. Realia from Nenet culture are delicately interwoven into the neckpieces, such as a small piece of harness with bone or colorful plastic buttons. The plastic buttons on the leather strips echo the modernization of the Nenet culture. They are handmade from the plastic containers used to transport goods by helicopter to the Nenets a few times a year. Everything is reclaimed. Nothing goes to waste. Another neckpiece bears stamp-size photographic portraits of Nenet women and girls. These are enclosed in a single crocheted sphere that is part of a larger cluster of spheres or suspended from meandering silver threads. Interwoven in the portraits emerge chunks of old rusted barbed wire circa WWII era that were collected by the artist just outside of Kirkenes, Norway. These pieces are reminders of the impregnable Russian barrier that contradicts the borderless lifestyle of the Nenets. Blix Kvammen’s residence in close proximity to the Russian border coupled by her first hand experiences with the Nenets are the inspiration for Tundra Archives.
Blix Kvammen’s neckpieces can be interpreted as reflections on time, both in process and meaning. Blix Kvammen devotes considerable time to her work, avoids shortcuts and works with infinite diligence. Each metal thread is delicately knit or crocheted, reflecting repetitiveness of the artist’s hand. Her work is in harmony with the Nenets and their culture, one that follows a different concept of time and is a lifestyle void of motorized vehicles and electrical heat. For the most part the Nenets are dependent upon the cold and the land.
The Nenets people and their culture are at risk of extinction. Reliant upon the tundra and the cold, the migratory ways of life of the Nenets are threatened by modernization, climate change and resource extraction. Taking into consideration the vulnerability of the Nenets, Blix Kvammen’s works can be viewed symbolically as memento mori, the Latin phrase «Remember you are mortal.»
While the artist’s creations are primarily pieces of jewelry, Blix Kvammen is less concerned about their adornment function. Of more importance to the artist is their vivid representation of peoples and their culture. In essence Blix Kvammen’s works are that of «bearer.» These keepsakes honor a vanishing culture that will live on through the bearer. Blix Kvammen’s work ensures that the Nenet people and their stories will not be forgotten.