Mouth Full of Ashes

Within the context and realm of descendants of silenced and suppressed voices during Soviet domination, I would like to highlight the Netherlands based artist Natalia Papaeva, born in Buryatia, Eastern Siberia.

Historically, Buryats are Mongols—oin irged, people of the forest—from the northern mountainous regions of the Greater Mongol empire, the part now claimed by Russia along with Lake Baikal. Just like Southern Mongolians, their language and culture has been systematically erased, threatened and disassembled.

In her work Papaeva combines video and performance, exploring ritualistic repetition and rhythm in verbal and non-verbal language, where she closely looks at the minuscule details of language, and specifically her Buryat mother tongue.

I forgot my mother tongue. And I am not the only one. Many people in my native Buryatia (Siberia) are losing their language. The Buryat language is one of nearly 2600 languages likely to disappear. Of all 6000 languages in the world, 43% are endangered and I am going through this process myself. In my performance, I am singing two sentences from a Buryat traditional song. The only two sentences I remember.

Reads the description of her video work Yokhor. Projected onto a massive curved wall, you see Natalia standing under a concrete underpass of sorts. She is singing two sentences of a traditional Buryat song, the only ones she can unearth from her memory, over and over again. They become a circular chant, a powerful prayer, invoking the deep seated pain of forgetting. They convey her feelings. Her feelings of loss and frustration as she is going through the process of losing her tongue as Buryat is counted as one of the endangered languages.

“In the 1960s, Buryats stopped learning their language at schools and universities, it became a facultative [option], something not very important to learn. If the language is cancelled, it disappears from the society very quickly. My peers, myself and many other generations are illiterate in their own language, but very good at Russian and English.
That lack of words, verbs made a huge dark anxious hole in my soul. I always doubt myself when I write something in Buryat-Mongolian. It is not an automatic process for me. Yet.”

In her experience it was the absolute lack of exposure to her native tongue that restricted her fluency, regardless of her background and her family speaking Buryat-Mongolian, it could not compensate for the loss of time, language and identity. Natalia explains that it is an extremely arduous task to learn her ancestral language in adult life but as she is getting her voice and power back, her inner strength empowers her journey to continue.

“There are not so many study books, in the digital world you cannot choose out of a million fonts.

You have to have such strong inner motivation not to give up. But I cannot give up. I think about my ancestors who used this script on a daily basis, it was forbidden, cancelled, and claimed to be backward.

So why should I give up?”

>>> Ripped out Tongues