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"From The Heart Of Mongolia" By Ian Findlay-Brown

When the communist party gained control of Mongolia in 1921, under the direction of the Soviet Union, the eradication of Mongolian traditions and cultural life was swift, brutal, and all consuming. The great purges of the 1930s saw the destruction of hundreds of monasteries during which tens of thousands of monks were killed along with innumerable intellectuals and ordinary people. The cost of ‘progress’ under an oppressive collectivization and class struggle in reshaping the country into a 20th-century ‘model’ communist state was almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. And throughout all the changes (social, cultural, political, and educational) the loss of identity was intensely felt among Mongolians. (1)

“The great losses for Mongolians are the great painting traditions of the 17th century and their philosophy of life,” says Tsendsuren Narangerel, painter and dean of the decorative art department of the Fine Art Institute of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar. “The philosophy of the Mongolian is their nomadic way of life and respect for nature and the earth. The worst is that Mongolians not only lost their national art but also the pride of their culture during the Soviet period.” (2)

For artists the thirst for new identities has been profound since the advent of democracy, in the early 1990s. This has informed the best art made by many of Mongolia’s finest modern artists, many of whom were educated either at art schools in the Soviet Union or in former Eastern Bloc countries such as Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia (the Czech Republic since 1993). At these art schools, as well as Mongolia’s pre-1990s art institutions, socialist realism dominated the students’ curriculum. (3)
Changing course has not been easy, especially for older artists. Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav, who is 42, is not one of these. For her, studying art under the socialist system at the Art Institute in Ulaanbaatar, from 1983 to 1987, and at the Academy of Fine Art and Theater, Minsk, from 1989 to 1993, was so frustrating that she left before graduating. This act underscores her resolute nature. “During the communist time in Mongolia and Russia, I only studied good technique and color,” she says. “But there was not any heart in the teaching.” (4)

Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav was born in 1967 in Ulaanbaatar where her early painting studies were dominated by a Soviet art curriculum, which she says was “little more than propaganda.” What she wanted was an education in which the richness and vitality of Mongolian cultural traditions and a modern visual sensibility could be combined to represent both her own psychology and her observations on a rapidly changing society. At the same time, she wanted to make art that possessed “a physical presence, colors that are typically Mongolian, and a geometry to the features that comes from traditional culture. I also wanted a stillness in my art that reflects something of the stoicism of nomadic Mongolian culture.”

Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav, as a painter and a woman, believes that Mongolia’s new artistic vision should also heal emotionally and spiritually. This has always been important to her, but not always easy. Some of the challenges she has faced in her healing process are clear in the paintings, works on paper, and soft sculptures that make up the exhibition The Silence of Healing at the Edge of the World. The pain of an emerging democracy and the dislocation of cultural traditions are deeply felt. To address this artists need to make new art to reflect this altered society. Munkhtsetseg’s art does this exceptionally well.

The process of healing only became possible for Munkhtsetseg after her return from Russia, when she witnessed how democracy and freedom of expression were not only altering Mongolian society but also changing individuals’ hopes. Today, she notes, there is refreshing contemporary art that represents true Mongolian aspirations and self-expression and that it is not propaganda. Now that there is freedom to make art in whatever way one desires, social thinking has moved from the collective to the personal.

Munkhtsetseg found her subject in women -- steely, bare-breasted women -- who represent a rejection of totalitarianism’s puritanical propaganda in which women, even though at the forefront of society, never appear to be equal to men. These women, carefully constructed in the artist’s mind, are then deconstructed on canvas to represent women’s spiritual freedom and their relationship to the world around them in all its complexity. Women in Mongolia, Munkhtsetseg notes, have always been equal and this is why she doesn’t try to take a feminist point of view. “I just express what I think and feel. It is up to the viewer to interpret what they see. Mongolians have always respected women as equals,” she says. “Women have the right to rule the household and the state. When men, in the past, went to war, women controlled everything. In traditional life men had to listen to women. So all my paintings represent the power of women.”

Woman as her central subject has given Munkhtsetseg the opportunity to create an uncompromising narrative through which to explore questions of spirituality, birth and death, female sexuality, personal disappointment, and motherhood. To examine these she uses numerous symbols from Mongolia’s rich cultural heritage. The birds, clothing, children, traditional Mongolian medicine, legends and myths on the origins of the world, humankind’s relationship to nature and animals, and the striking traditional hairstyle known as ehkner us, which means ‘married woman’s hairstyle,’ all inform her
figurative art, recent abstractions, and representational collages and drawings.

The power flowing from Munkhtsetseg’s bold figures is in stark contrast to her slight physical presence that hides a steely determination. She observes and listens intently. Her slim hands exude an appealing combination of fragility and strength. She wields a brush thick with paint and tears paper for her collages with equal passion. When the results are not to her liking, she simply begins again, working until she is satisfied. When she is happy with the results, she is never boastful. Indeed, Munkhtsetseg (“Mugi” to her friends) has a sense of humility about her that is memorable. For all her accomplishments, since the mid-1980s, she says simply, “It is only during the past five years that I have considered myself an artist. Before, I only saw myself as an artist in training.”

Munkhtsetseg’s portraits of women are not gentle or refined or timid. They are tough, highly textured, boldly colored studies of characters that exude powerful emotions. While she speaks clearly to her own culture, she is also addressing womankind far beyond it. Her commanding protagonists are by turns also absolutely still and animated by tension in their fluid geometry. This is accentuated by her use of strong blues, reds, browns, and greens. This is especially true of her works in which children and giving birth sit at very heart of her narrative.

One sees this in such works as Endless Desire (2008), representing the reality of multiple generations. Reborn (2008), Birth Myth, and Nexus (both 2009) project the innocence of the mother/child relationship. The dramatic Spirit of Survival), in which the artist uses a rich green, not only to emphasize the importance of children as a physical reality but also, as they sit on leaves that are affixed to the woman’s hair, as dream. These works confirm some of the major strengths of her art such as her love for textures and colors.

While these works form a collective memory of both the place of children and their life-affirming innocence in the life of a woman and society, they also show the power and spirituality of womanhood. This memory is strengthened by traditional and modern imagery and Munkhtsetseg’s own personal experience of the loss of a child. “The relationship between tradition and modernity is strongly expressed in her work. One can feel her soul and energy and power,” Tsendsuren Narangerel, “Children symbolize the nexus of life. They represent personal love. I have a son. But I have experienced the loss of a child at birth,” Munkhtsetseg says. “After my son, I had a miscarriage and could not have another child, which has affected me deeply. This is why my works are deeply personal and why my works have helped to heal my spirit.”

While Munkhtsetseg cites such artists as Kiki Smith, Hans Arp, Louise Bourgeois, and Yayoi Kusama, as well as the Mongolian sculptor Zanabazar (1635—1723) as inspirations, she says that none are influences. The artist says that when sees the work of other artists, “It makes me reflect on myself because it is very difficult to be oneself.”

Beyond traditional Mongolian culture and symbolism she notes that theater design, mural art, and Russian icons have also played a part in changing her art over the past two decades. And while her oeuvre is dominated by both figurative and abstract work, she sees herself merely as an artist, “neither an abstract artist nor a realist.”

If Munkhtsetseg’s art is neither abstract nor realistic, there is certainly a case for seeing much of it as tending toward the surreal. Her symbolism and how she uses it within her paintings and collage reinforces this idea. Munkhtsetseg has carefully constructed her women over the past two decades, beginning with a concentration on hair, then the eyes, the ears, the legs, the hands, and then the breasts; while the women are often semi-naked, there are rarely erotic elements in her pictures.

Such careful development was also a revelation for the artist. “When I had learned to paint all the physical elements of the body, it felt like my painting had gained a soul,” she says. “It felt like a living being was being born through the painting and it became more spiritual as my work moved from the mere physical representation.”

Birds -- including magpies and skylarks -- in traditional Mongolian medicine are symbols of one’s heartbeat, and are central to the surreal drama that is taking place in such works as Pulse (2008), Sacred Offering (2009), The Gift (2009), and Lung, (2008). In Sacred Offering Munkhtsetseg’s birds rest in the luxuriant hair of the alien blue-faced woman, a timeless face, one that reminds the viewer of religious figures in ikon painting and ancient mural art. This blue – an important color for Munkhtsetseg, which come from the influence of Zanabazar -- is also found in her moving work entitled Gazing (2009). In Pulse the birds are linked to the woman’s veins and are either drawing blood from her or taking her pulse. In Tangling Hair (2009) the birds appear to nest in an ornate hairstyle suggestive of tangled branches. Other symbols of heart and bird at the bottom of the painting -- to the left and the right -- add to the surreal image.

“In nomadic culture Mongolians believe that birds are symbols of good and bad news and they can also be used in fortune telling,” she says. “Birds have been used in Mongolian and Tibetan traditional anatomy for centuries. I am inspired by this as birds in my art represent healing, transfiguration, becoming pregnant, and the pulse of life.”

That Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav’s art is about the power of women -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually -- is clear. With each new series she builds upon earlier work to make these points more fully as she matures as an artist. Her use of hair, for example, speaks not only to female beauty and the power of women, but also to the spiritual and humanity’s connection with animals. “In traditional Mongolian culture,” she says, “the hair holds the woman’s spirit and soul. I believe in this. But hair also represents the abstract cosmic world.”

She addresses this in her paintings, collages, and drawing through a drama of color and lyrical line. In Hair Performance: I am Protected (2009) the hair flows from the head of nude woman on her back, at the top of the picture, as if it is seeking the earth. In the delicate line drawing Hair Performance: Hair Ceremony (2009) and the oil Hair Performance – Roots (2009) the nude figures sit, legs open, at the top of the painting, their hair flowing gently to the ground seeking to root itself in the earth. In the oil Nowever (2002), the hair of three women streams across the picture place taking on the rhythm of a landscape.

In the early works On The Mountain (2000) and Messenger (2002) hair is clearly shown as a metaphor for physical power. The ehkner us hairstyle of the women is made in the image of powerful goat horns. But here Munkhtsetseg is not only showing power, but also connecting humankind with the animal world and showing just how central this is to all life.

Munkhtsetseg is speaking not about sexuality – though it is certainly an element in her work – but about how people are rooted to the earth and connected to all natural and cosmic power. She says that this is especially true about women whose grasp on matters of life and death, nature and natural relationships are often more grounded than men’s.

“Women give birth to men,” she says. “The traditional concept of hair is that it holds the spirit and soul. So in these works the women are seeking their connection to nature as the hair seeks to be rooted in the ground. When the hair is being cut, as in my Liberation Series No 3 (2008) it can be compared to meditation so as to release the mind and soul of pain.”

Further enhancing the surreal in her work is how she uses aspects of traditional Mongolian medicine, its spells and rituals to look beyond the surface of the body. That birds and animals feature so prominently in her art is not mere affectation. It is something that is thoroughly of Mongolian as it the belief that animals can heal humans both physically and mentally.

For Munkhtsetseg the body is a whole cosmic unit, not merely separate external and internal worlds to be treated separately: They speak as one in the natural order of life. “I used to draw organs individually, but now when I draw them it is as a whole, as an integral part of the whole body,” she says. “Now, in my art the body has a spirit or a soul, before it was bits and pieces.”

Munkhtsetseg’s collage technique is very different from that used in her paintings. In her paintings the spirit of her figures emerges from beneath the brush, but in collage she says, “When I create a figure I do it by tearing the paper I use my hands and it feels like the paper itself creates the figure.”

She feels that in her collages she can express the ideas of traditional Mongolian medicine more strongly as she can use ready-made materials like book pages from medical texts. “For me, it is important that I make many abstract sketches in advance so that the sketches lead to the final creation. I can then show how spells and treatments can be used to change the gender of a child in the womb, using sheep’s wool and goat’s wool, making a thread of it, and tying it around the body as the person is reading a mantra.

The collages, in which she utilizes handmade paper, cloth, pencil, ink, oil, pages from anatomy books, and recently, photographs, have added immeasurably to Munkhtsetseg’s artistic vision. There is a unique and disturbing strength to these works. She has chosen not to look at the external beauty of the female body, but to highlight the internal. It is inside the body that the struggle for life takes place, within the pulsing of organs and breathing skin, from the constant beating of the fragile heart to the life-giving blood that hurtles through the veins. It is here that Munkhtsetseg’s cosmic reality takes full flight. Her fine collage series Tearing Language (2009) not only highlights the cosmic, but also speak to us as her gateway to the soul.

Works such as Tearing Language No 2, No 9, and No 13 exemplify just how well Munkhtsetseg constructs the cliché of the sensual naked woman shown from behind and then how well she deconstructs it. Her images are from the seductive poses made by commercial artists who cater to a market that demands illusion, not truth. Munkhtsetseg understands very well, as her dramatic paintings show, just how often truth and illusion collide and become tortured visions.

Tearing Language No 9 is a singularly powerful example of her collage art. Here we are aware of the muscle, sinew, and organs and we sense how they work together. What the artist is clearly saying to the viewer is that beyond the body’s soft skin lies a confusion of life-giving organs that are not so pretty to look at. While she often reveals the structure of bones and joints, here she uses the long plait to become the spine: This is her only gesture to female beauty. At the same time, she shows us that the organs of our system have to be healed before we can become whole again. Munkhtsetseg’s collages reinforce the reality that healing begins for us on the inside.

Using collage also allows her to show other aspects of her thoughts and beliefs, from examining shamanistic beliefs to articulating the simplest gesture of a child. The heavy impasto of her paintings gives way in the collages to a rougher quality, with a touch of spontaneity. This makes for a different narrative tone and perception in her oeuvre. It is as if she is peeling back the skin of her emotions to let the viewer inside her very thoughts on life, birth, death, and personal loss.

Although her collages are highly controlled creations and emotionally and intellectually on a different artistic reality than her paintings, this does not mean to say that they are always austere. Far from it, there are touches of wry humor, too.

Munkhtsetseg’s surreal touch in such paintings as Pulse (2008), Spirit of Survival (2009), and Sacred Offering (2009) is carried further in the bird image that is Tearing Language No 5. (2009). Here Munkhtsetseg displays both fine drawings skills and a vivid imagination. The bird is realized as an illustration in an anatomy book about strange beings. The inner workings of the bird are revealed in magnificent detail: It is part animal, part human. The feet are human legs and the wings are outstretched human hands; both are skeletal, the tendon holding the muscle to the bone that adds a peculiar strength to the skeletal hands. A headless male torso, arms outstretched, hands clasp a length of human hair, emerges from the bird’s abdomen. This birth image, which reminds one of mythic human/animal connections, adds vividly to this surreal work.

There is something disturbingly obsessive about this work. But then Munkhtsetseg’s art is not meant to be a pleasant interlude among sentimental images. It is meant to confront, boldly and questioningly. In this work she achieves a sense of drama so different from that in the narrative of her paintings. At the same time, the entire Tearing Language series makes us realize that her art, like her life, is far more substantial than the sum of its parts. She makes us aware that life is also more than simply breathing, loving, and constant struggle.

Such notions are further examined in Munkhtsetseg’s recent soft sculptures: I don't tell where I am from, Path, Body as Tangled Hair in Intermission Space, and Enjoyable Pleasure (all 2009). “I wanted to see some aspects of my painting in three dimensions,” she says. These works are another significant step in her exploration of healing through art: they speak to children, the emotional pain of loss, physical trauma, and identity.

Although Munkhtsetseg never studied sculpture, she began to consider it after seeing sculptures by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama in New York in 2001. But her inspiration as a sculptor also has its roots in Zanabazar’s art. Since childhood, she has admired his Tara sculptures. Munkhtsetseg’s soft sculptures of sewn silk and felt, however, are far from these influences. It is clear in these works that her training in theater design comes into play.

Munkhtsetseg first makes drawings, then carefully follows these as she sews (a skill she learned as a young woman). It is a long process. “Sometimes I get lost along the way. But my mistakes give me good ideas.” Sewing also gives her the “freedom of working with soft materials. It helps me to develop my images.”

Monglians love to make things with silk, including special traditional clothes, deel, for children. “I made it for my son in 1992. I have always wanted to make something using silk,” she says. “Sometimes, when I finish a painting, I feel that I have not expressed all my emotions. So sculpture becomes another emotional level of my narrative of the woman/child relationship.”

Path, a silver-colored sculpture of a seated, forlorn faceless baby with its umbilical chord snaking out from its body, is a powerful work that suggests the terror of the innocent. This is also true of the goldcolored I don’t tell where I am from. The multi-armed child is seated with hands covering eyes, ears, and mouth in the manner of ‘I have nothing, see nothing, and say nothing.’ Such works have their origins in paintings such as Spirit of Survival, Nexus, and Birth Myth (all 2009).

While sculptures such Path and I don’t tell where I am from suggest something of the pain of birth, they also allude to the artist’s own personal loss. This is not the case with her sculptures dealing with contortionists as in silver and gold Enjoyable Pleasure and in the bold-red group in Body as Tangled Hair in Intermission Space (both 2009). These two works, with their origins in works such as Reborn (2008) and Pattern of Nature (2009) speak more to struggle and survival than birth pangs. Munkhtsetseg’s contortionists appear to suggest that struggle in life is a constant, a necessity for change and healing.

“When I am making soft sculpture,” says Munkhtsetseg, “I feel that I am creating a human body by the Lunar calendar. In the Lunar calendar the human soul exists in different organs every day. For example, first the soul exists in the feet; then the soul exists in knees, and so on.”

Mongolian artists feel their cultural loss deeply. How do a nation and its people heal in the midst of change? This is a difficult question to answer, according to Tsendsuren Narangerel. “When I was abroad, I saw a lot of Mongolian cultural items in museums. I felt sad about that. The loss of culture is incurable. Which also means spiritual and material loss,” he says. “We should not repeat this mistake. For that we have to work hard and to create art. So in that way art heals.”

Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav’s rich personal narrative is certainly an important statement in the healing process. Looking at a broad range of her art made since the late 1990s, one realizes always that for her art is as much about healing as it is about the art itself. Through this the pain of her loss as a woman is slowly being alleviated. Her vision is becoming stronger. Her voice is more confident. Despite this she continues to feel doubtful. It is a necessary doubt, one that drives her forward to heal and be healed. “Each year,” says Munkhtsetseg, “I feel I become more of a complete artist. But even so I always find myself feeling that there is something missing.” (6)

1. Baabar (Bat-Erdene Batbayar), History of Mongolia, Cambridge, England, The White Horse Press,1999. The editor Christopher Kaplonski, notes in his Editor’s Preface, “One of his [Baabar’s] most famous writings, Buu mart! (Don’t Forget!), written in Moscow in 1988, but not published in Mongolia until 1990, “was a call to remember Mongolian traditions and identity in the face of socialism.”
2. Quotations from Tsendsuren Narangerel are taken from the author’s interview with him at the Fine Art Institute of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar on April 17, 2009.
3. This is an extended and updated version of an earlier essay. See Ian Findlay, “From The Heart Of Mongolia,” Asian Art News, Volume 19 Number 3, May/June 2009, pages 72—77.
4. Unless otherwise stated quotations are from interviews with Munkhtsetseg Jalkhaajav conducted by the author in Ulaanbaatar between April 14 and April 17, 2009.
5. Zanabazar (1635—1723), also know as Ondor Gegeen, was the First Bogd Gegeen. He is considered to be the greatest artist of Mongolia.
6. The author thanks Ms. Delgermaa Ganbat, advocacy Program Coordinator, the Arts Council of Mongolia, and Ms. Ts. Yuno for their generous help with interpreting while in Ulaanbaatar.

Copyright © Ian Findlay-Brown 2009