Shot over the course of five years, photographer Ayar Kuo has captured different interpretations of an annual pagan cleansing ritual in Yakutia – also known as the Sakha Republic, a federal subject of Russia in the far east of Siberia. Celebrated throughout Ayar’s native land, the ritual is called Yssah and is a way to “awaken the spirits of nature” and “to become closer to Aiyy [a deity].” As a way to rid yourself of bad energy, illnesses and negative thoughts Assah is an important holiday for Yakutians.
“The series was a cleansing process for me and made me return to the sources of my identity,” explains Ayar. “I travelled around native territories attending events which concentrated on the customs, legends and originality of my people.” From mass dancing to kumis drinking (a milk made from a mare), the climax of the festival is “the greeting of the sun – an ancient rite that has been maintained to this day, symbolising the cyclical nature of life,” says Ayar.
Nature and its power was something Ayar was keen to communicate in the series: “The process of gathering images completely absorbed me… It pushed me forward but I was losing sight of what was compelling me to take pictures,” says Ayar. “I finally put aside my camera and stretched out my hands to the sky, I felt a strong connection. It was what I’d been looking for, those feelings of profound connection to nature and I wanted that to be seen in my images.”
The ethereal quality to Ayar’s images is best in her portraits of people at the ritual, where they stand in clusters unaware and stoic in traditional dress. But there’s also glimmers of the crowd off-duty and yawning, creating a lovely contrast with the majesty of the ritual. Twilight colours combine to create a veil of blue and grey that infiltrate the images and adds to the atmosphere of the ceremonies Ayar observed. But the slithers of lush green connects us to Yakutia’s surroundings and prevents the series from becoming too cinematic.
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