Richness of Mongolian contemporary art

There has always been a great dialogue in Asia on how contemporary art can find its way between tradition and modernity. In countries of Central Asia, which are all outstanding in a way and have different arts, artistic expression used to be based on traditions. These countries later experienced the rule of the Soviet Union during most of the 20th century. This period has also affected Mongolia – the first communist satellite of the USSR – and particularly, its art culture for 70 years. However, the tradition and folk art roots have never vanished from people’s heart. 

Mongolia is home to one of the last nomadic living cultures in the world. It is a vast territory, squeezed between Russia and China, populated by only 3.3 million people but home to over 50 million cattle heads. When traveling throughout the country, it is easy to feel how sacred the land and animals are in the heart of its people. And there is indeed a rich Mongolian culture including folk arts, literature and calligraphy, traditional medicine, rituals, and spiritual connections with nature on this vast land.

Mongolian art roots originate from those petroglyphs on ‘Deer Stones’ that date back from 8000 years ago. Art forms have been later largely developed during the period of the 13th-15th centuries of the Great Mongol Empire, actually with influence from those conquests, then later transformed by the influence of Buddhism in the 16th-19th centuries. As the world was changing and developing, Mongolia had changed too. In the 1910s, the first film was screened in the capital, and in the 1930s, the first cinema theater called Ard was opened to the public.

When studying Mongolian “modern” art, one could categorize it in three major periods: starting from the late 19th century, during the socialist period (1921-1990), and after 1990. When Impressionism developed in Europe in the late 1880s, Mongolian traditional painting evolved with the use of more colors (before, only natural pigments were laid on cotton or linen canvases). Representation of characters and life scenes escaped from the sole purely Buddhist inspiration, but shamanism was still somewhat influential. Between 1921 and 1990, Mongolian art changed under the umbrella of “social realism” for spreading propaganda as a political tool. During that time, especially visual arts developed under the influence of European schools venturing into realistic depictions, depth method, whereas painting oil techniques mainly developed under Russian influences.

When Mongolia became an independent country in 1990, democracy brought freedom of creating and of using innovative artistic practices. Since then, it has been the new dominant wind of change leading to the art of today. As we see modern Mongolia as a whole, there is a unique culture which is – de facto – neither totally Asian nor European. Mongolians believe in spirits and their lives connect with nature. They live in respect of the law of Nature, even in the city.

Surrounded by four mountains, capital Ulaanbaatar (meaning “Red hero”) stands as the center for politics, arts and culture with a combination of urban and nomadic lifestyles. There are some 30 art galleries for only 1.6 million people (which is about half of the country’s population). Some galleries are more active and influential to the society. The National Art Gallery is a leading governmental organization (established in 1991). It has collected and preserved over 4000 artworks. Others are private galleries and they provide art education for most and cater for the needs of few shrewd art collectors. Altan Khaan Gallery is one of the most active, well located at the heart of the city. It is dedicated to the support of young and promising Mongolian artists with a strong value appreciation potential. Since 2015, the gallery has created in excess of 60 solo and joint exhibitions in Ulaanbaatar and has so far participated in just a few international art fairs (Milan, Paris and Amsterdam).

It is acknowledged that some of the artists who collaborate with Altan Khaan Gallery are shaping the art changes of the future. One of them, Naidandorj E. (born in 1984) is a compassionate and active artist. At the core of his art is a contemporary narrative on changing the fundamentals of Mongolian society which can be adversely influenced today by politics, religion, technology and human trend towards globalization. To achieve this, he uses for instance joker characters and ancient royalties with modern appearances, in different forms of art such as calligraphy, paintings with a mix of contemporary and traditional styles, or even installations.

In Mongolian tradition, women have often been perceived as powerful counselors and supervisors, doing rituals, saving and balancing energy for life. Women’ perceived strength has been well respected in Mongolia for many centuries, but today the subject of “queen wisdom” is more often put forward. Queen wisdom here means that women have natural wisdom for healing, negotiating and reconciling. Therefore, Mongolians do respect women, especially mothers. As an example, female artist and mother Shurentsetseg S. (born in 1988) is reminding us in her art of the natural strength of women by beautiful figurative and narrative forms with soft colors.

As for Ganbold D. (born in 1982), his source of inspiration lies in the collective consciousness through a wide range of subjects, families, friends, co-workers and of course animals that reflect tradition in the new era. He often expresses himself using sharp colors, mastering light effects and he is keen to show movement. His world is probably influenced by cubist painters of all over the world. The way in which he uses significant symbols, stories from the past, all could be explained by how tradition has become more important to his eyes than before.

Mongolian culture and arts have been awakening for the last three decades. Artist Tamir S. (born in 1976) who lives between Ulaanbaatar and Harhorin (where Karakorum – the former capital of the Great Mongol Empire – lies) speaks from his heart of a new era that is creating a bridge between tradition and modernity. His modern calligraphy works are engaging and he intends to push his calligraphy modern style to new heights on media such as raw rice paper or even porcelain.

This October 10th and 11th, at the Annual Dutch Art Fair (ADAF 2020), Altan Khaan Gallery will display a few of their artworks together with those of Dawaa M. (born in 1964), an established ceramic artist who is indeed gifted in creating forms of Mongolian deities or of young Mongolian women of today with extraordinary grace and always in a noble attitude. Her ceramics are indeed stunning and communicative.

The talented artists from the remote steppes of Mongolia enrich our understanding of how humans can live in harmony with their environment, in it the spirits of their ancestors being included. They are also here to remind us of how powerful the combination of tradition and modernity can be for inspiring us all to create new art for a new era.

The author, Tsetsegbadam B. is a curator at the National Art Gallery of Mongolia.