Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Universe: T. Nurmaajav

Full Moon (Detail)
I was invited to the opening of painter T. Nurmaajav's show by her fellow Uvs aimag natives, our former neighbor Tsagana, and her father Norov. I had never been to a Mongolian opening, and this one would be at the Mongolian Modern Art Gallery, a very different venue than the history museums we have seen, such as the Zanizabar Museum.

Some of the very first Mongolians we met when we came here in 2012 were the artists roaming Sukhbaatar Square, looking for foreigners like us to buy their paintings and drawings, homing in on our bewildered faces with pinpoint accuracy. Of course I bought a few before realizing that there were many, many artists who paint in a nearly identical style, recognizable for its absence of perspective, efficiency of line or brushstroke in articulating form and motion, and the nearly universal subject matter—people and animals living the nomadic life on the Mongolian landscape. This is the style of painting that I have come to understand as traditional Mongolian painting, practiced not only by souvenir sellers but also by many of the art students at the university where I worked in Khovd, despite the influence of contemporary teachers from Russia. So without knowing exactly what to expect, I was very surprised at what Nurmaajav was showing at the gallery that evening. With Tsagana's help, I arranged to talk to her a few days later.

T. Nurmaajav
Nurmaajav has taken on the task of incorporating traditional Mongolian painting into a contemporary form. She told me that Mongolian painting is foremost about narrative, a story that is customarily told about the land and its people. So important is that narrative that in traditional painting, factual visual details are often changed to keep from obscuring the narrative—the roof of a ger is cut away to reveal the activity inside, or most commonly, an aerial view is taken to overcome the limitations of the view from the ground. As if to prove that she understands conventional expectation and the measure of skill she would be judged against as a Mongolian artist, Melody of Land, which hangs exactly at the center of her show, is an example of this traditional style. With that out of the way, the rest of the exhibition departs, crossing a border to the world of contemporary narrative and formal concerns. She told me that in her work, she too is concerned with narrative. But she wants to focus on a new story.

In Full Moon Nurmaajav disregards spatial logic to show the effects of urbanization on traditional housing, presenting nomadic ger living tethered by power lines, which connect to the houses and apartment buildings that increasingly occupy the space between gers that was once the reason for living nomadically. The title's full moon is rendered as a rabbit, which is just as likely as a man's face or as green cheese that is squeezed into a perfect sphere.

In Kite (which may not be the best translation for this title) traditional Mongolian imagery is folded into paper airplanes, soaring randomly above the quilt of a lush Mongolian landscape. Several paintings, including Sound of Silence re-imagine the constellations as figures in traditional Mongolian life, lions and fish replaced with camels, cows, goats, and horses. (Lots of horses.) Throughout the show, new imagery is constructed by filling shapes—a flower, (Red Mountain,) the silhouette of a woman's body—with the imagery of the past, making explicit visually the debt to one's culture when imagining the present.

In Sacred Mountain, Nurmaajav envisions the conflict between the spirit of the land and the hunger of industry, pitting a mountain's guardian dragon against an agglomeration of digging machinery. It is not my favorite image, rendered in pink and blue, but it is one of her most powerful paintings. In a complicated story, mining has been seen as an economic savior here until recently, when a clash between political and business interests has created a pause that will allow many people to think twice about the costs and benefits of the deal. With this painting, T. Nurmaajav has weighed in on that conflict.

Ертѳнц, (Universe), January 20–26, 2015
Mongolian Museum of Modern Art

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Universe: T. Nurmaajav

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Melody of Land

Melody of Land (detail)

Full Moon

Full Moon (detail)

Full Moon (detail)

Sun With Rain

Sun With Rain (detail)

Sun With Rain (detail)


Kite (detail)

Red Mountain

Red Mountain (detail)

Sound of Silence

Sound of Silence (detail)

Sacred Mountain

Sacred Mountain (detail)