Bottom Line: For the first time, the Tibet House in Chelsea invited the public to the opening a very special exhibition of traditional and modern Mongolian art. Rather than being too conceptual, the artists molded both the old and new in a surprisingly uplifting display of the familiar to the very frightening beauty of Mongolian nomadic culture.
Review: Hidden and yet savagely breathtaking, Mongolia, a landlocked country high on a plateau and sandwiched between two regional hegemonies, is often overlooked or even misunderstood by outsiders. Its very own remoteness has made it sanctuary from the bordering military powers. Mongolia is anything but an extension of Russia or China. It is a nation of many languages, heritages and tribes who have managed to preserve their way of existence, not my military might, but through harmony and reclusiveness.
Mongolia’s nomadic heritage, stemming from the lineage of various tribes and peoples, is about survival in a harsh, unforgiving environment and thriving spirit. In spite of its seemingly isolated position, Mongolian traditional culture and art share common traits with other societies in distant continents. One would be mistaken to dismiss Mongolian culture as primitive, but it is ever-lasting as its people have found ways to carry on free of outside pressure.
As I looked at the artwork, I remembered a line from Toby Ziegler of the TV program The West Wing, who once argued that “there is a connection between progress of a society and progress in the arts.” Perhaps, it wasn’t so much about progress with measuring Mongolian art, but bringing out what had been there all along. The artists at the exhibit brought a unique flair putting their own stamp on traditional arts and crafts. Some works resembled the Tsam masks originally used to ward off evil, while others brought familiar Georgia O’Keeffe-esque motifs such as the buffalo skulls and flowers – which also characterize isolation and freedom. Perhaps for many Mongolians who have lived on the plateau know that beauty lies equally in life and death. For these nomadic tribes, they have learned to treat these two as one of the same. It really is the wild west with a tradition inspired by wanderers and survivors.
The evening featured more than paintings and sculptures. There were also live performances. Contributing artist Ganhuyag Natsag‘s children performed two traditional dances. His daughter carried a certain elven spritely charm during her dance. Pretty and smiling, she captured light, whereas his son performed a much darker-themed dance resembling a vengeful force of nature that would take anything in its path. As we watched him perform, he fixed the audience with a steady gaze and threw his arms with dramatically pronounced cues to the slightly punk-rocky violin strings, reminiscent of the German string-power band the Inchtabokatables. Finally, Choimbol Ganbattar treated us to a live painting demonstration of a black and white stallion accompanied by a morin khuur, a traditional Mongolian horse-haired string instrument.
It was a rare opportunity to learn about a culture I had only known from my old National Geographic magazines I read as a child. And seeing a contemporary exhibit that fused both traditional and modern influences in harmony was an unusual treat.
From Earth to the Divine: Contemporary Mongolian Expressionism continues through November 17, 2016. For more information, visit the Tibet House.