After centuries as one of the world’s greatest empires, Mongolia is now faced with the unique task of forging a national identity from a distant memory.
From the 17th century, Mongolia spent 200 years under Chinese rule. This was followed by 70 years as a satellite of the Soviet Union after they helped Mongolia gain freedom from China in 1921.
Under Soviet control, education flourished (leaving a legacy of a 98% literacy rate), but Mongolian cultural heritage was all but eradicated. Any reference to or representation of Genghis Khan was forbidden, as were Buddhism and shamanism, the country’s major religious practices. Only secular art depicting nationalist themes was permitted.
In 1990, Mongolia declared independence from Russia and established a democratic government. The subsequent years have seen Mongolia emerge as of one of the world’s fastest growing economies (17.5% in 2011) as it mines and exports its myriad natural resources.
This sudden shift in both the country’s government and economy has meant a massive tide of geographical and cultural changes for Mongolians.
While 40% of Mongolians remain rural nomads, a third of the population has now moved to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. UB, as it’s known to most, only acquired a fixed location around 1778 after over a hundred years as a mobile monastic tent city.
The rapid acquisition of wealth by a segment of the population from mining means that UB is a tapestry of juxtapositions, with luxury stores like Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Emporio Armani in the centre and at least 800,000 people living in gers (circular, nomadic tents) on the city’s outskirts without plumbing, electricity, or modern heating.
This swift urbanisation combined with the decimation of vast swathes of land for mining has created a climate of cultural confusion. Modern Mongolians are struggling to sculpt a cohesive national identity and uphold Mongolian heritage after a succession of regime changes against a backdrop of increasing inequality and empty consumerism spurred by US-style capitalism.
But in the midst of this muddled landscape, Mongolians are beginning to create free, inspired art for the the first time in hundreds of years. And as often happens in times of hardship, Mongolia’s artists are using their craft to comment on and explore their country’s past, present, and future.
From the 8th century, Mongolian art was largely religious, depicting Buddhist stories and figures. Under Soviet Union rule, however, Mongolian life and art took a decidedly secular turn. As Communism was established in Mongolia, Buddhist monks were killed, temples were burned, and only art that publicised the new system was supported. This nationalist style of painting was called zurag (painting in Mongol) and often depicted scenes from everyday life, such as farming.
Since the the establishment of democracy in 1990, Mongolian artists have begun to repurpose the style of zurag paintings using scenes of early Mongolian history, Buddhism, and shamanism as symbolism for modern social commentary.
In their reinterpretation of the zurag style, Mongolian artists are retaining classic features like ultra-fine brushwork and bright colours, but exploring themes of modern Mongolian life.
Three young artists (half of Mongolia’s population is under age 25) creating beautiful works in this style are Uuriintuya Dagvasambuu, Nomin Bold, and Baatarzorig Batjargal.
Uuriintuya Dagvasambuu, who lives and works in UB, studied painting at the School of Fine Arts at the Mongolian State University of Arts and Culture and often uses motifs from traditional Buddhist painting.
Many of Uuriintuya’s paintings possess an air of surreal magic, depicting real objects in a dreamlike state. Her use of soft pastel colours adds to the paintings’ ethereal quality.
Nomin Bold also lives and works in UB. According to notes from the 976 gallery, which displays her work in UB, ‘Nomin’s goal is to…encourage viewers to evaluate cultural norms from the point of view of Mongolia’s ancient history.’ In order to do so, she often employs gold leaf, collaged pages from Mongolian scriptures, traditional Mongolian painting techniques, and Buddhist imagery to depict modern scenes, such as the chaotic streets of UB.
Baatarzorig Batjargal’s paintings, according to gallery notes, is ‘particularly concerned with the loss of Mongolian heritage through a succession of outside influences.’
The work of all three artists is a distinct stylistic amalgamation of modern imagery, style, and colours with traditional practices and references. None would be out of place in galleries or shops in some of the biggest cities across the US, England, France, or Australia. The artists possess modern sensibilities and awareness, allowing them to slot their commentary about Mongolia’s current cultural crisis seamlessly into the international art world.
And therein lies the crux of the unique cultural space Mongolia is teetering in, both at the forefront of development and innovation and desperately seeking a defining link to their past. It will be fascinating to see how the country’s art, economy, and infrastructure develop in the coming decades and whether a cohesive national identity rooted in a rich heritage can be forged in the face of such rapid and drastic change.
Works by the artists highlighted in this article are on display at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art’s 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane until 10 April 2016.