THE CURATOR'S STATEMENT
The curator of the "On the Road of Bones" exhibit is Thomas Ross Miller, Ph.D., an anthropologist, writer and media artist. Among his previous exhibitions are Drawing Shadows to Stone: Photographing North Pacific Peoples (1897–1902) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Siberian Shamans at the Linden-State Museum of Ethnology in Stuttgart, Germany.
Thomas R. Miller about the Exhibit:
We set out with the idea of creating an exhibition for the Kris Waldherr Art and Words Studio Gallery showing the beauty and severity of the circumpolar north, the primary area of my research as an anthropologist. I had previously curated photography and mixed media installations focusing on native peoples and cultures of Siberia and the northwest coast of North America for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and on Siberian shamans for the Linden Museum of Ethnology in Germany. For my next gallery environment I wanted a fresh take on the historic intermingling of Russians and native people during the Soviet and contemporary periods in the far north.
Through social networking media I came into contact with Bolot Bochkarev, a native journalist and blogger from Yakutsk who has a passion for introducing foreigners to the Sakha Republic in northeastern Siberia. Together with a few friends including Ajar Varlamov, a frequent traveler throughout the Russian north, and Nastya Borisova, a young Sakha woman who works in publishing, Bolot decided to take a road trip in the dead of winter to Oymyakon, the world's coldest village known as the "Pole of Cold." Joined by a small crew of fellow travelers, these young Sakha friends followed the treacherous old Kolyma Highway across the forbidding frozen landscape, documenting what they found along the way in photographs and online journals. Kris and I found the images they captured to be extraordinary for their beauty and presence as well as their rarity and the little-known people and places they revealed. Incredibly, all three have only been practicing photography for a few years, yet their pictures are brilliantly composed.
To accompany these images of majestic nature including ice, mountains, trees, and animals, we felt it was vitally important to tell the story of the tragic history of the labor camps where those who built the Kolyma Highway, an astonishing feat of human engineering, were imprisoned. They were among the millions of victims of Stalinist repression sent to Siberia between the 1930s and the 1950s, the majority of them innocent of any crimes whatsoever. After being arrested, incarcerated, and transported from European Russia and the Ukraine to the northern wilderness, they were enslaved under unimaginably brutal conditions. Inmates were routinely beaten and tortured, starved and frozen, forced to build their own prison cells and dig their own graves. The human cost of building the highway was so deadly that it is known as the Road of Bones, for the bodies of countless workers who died were simply paved over or shoveled into snowbanks on the side of the road where they fell.
Many Russian families, including those who have immigrated to Brooklyn, lost relatives in the camps, but Americans remain largely unaware of the hidden history of Kolyma. We present the story of the GULAG through text panels and quotations from survivors, observers, and historians. Some of their words are placed in shadowboxes with illuminated portraits of postwar native artists from the far northern reaches of Siberia. Their gaze represents those who belong to the land and bear witness to the enduring strength of the northern people and their connection with nature. Shamans, the principal subject of my anthropological research, have maintained a secret but crucial link between the people and the spirits of the land, providing threads of continuity joining the living and the dead. In this exhibition they are seen in montages of photographs from my field work, shown in the taiga setting that is the traditional source of their power.
Today the Kolyma Highway lies in a semi-ruined state, with large sections being reclaimed by the elements. In the past five years, however, adventure travelers and off-road motorcyclists have begun journeying to the Sakha Republic, drawn by the challenge of driving the Road of Bones across the Pole of Cold. By last winter, Bolot was receiving so many inquiries that he decided to make the difficult trip himself. Thanks to his intrepid band of travelers, we are able to show the beauty and terror of Kolyma in New York.