Orkhontuul Banzragch is a visual artist whose surrealist paintings have attracted increasing attention in the Mongolian art scene. Since the induction of his Face of painting into Mongolia’s State Treasury in 2014, Orkhontuul’s work has been heralded as the new wave of Mongolian art. His style is distinct and doesn’t fit the mold of traditional Mongolian art, which might include predictable imagery of horses, wolves, nomadic warriors, and the great wilderness. Instead, Orkhontuul prefers portraits, which, more often than not, are based on himself or people in his life. He wields his art as a vessel in which he can share his commentary on the struggles of modern-day Mongolians – touching on modern issues such as the national identity crisis, the population’s collective nostalgia for a supposedly glorious past, among other sociopolitical topics. As such, despite his nonconformist style, Orkhontuul is widely regarded as an artist who creates authentic Mongolian art.
Orkhontuul Banzragch是近年来蒙古艺术界中崭露头角的视觉艺术家。2014年，他的《Face of》一画被选入蒙古国库（Mongolia’s State Treasury），其作品也被标榜为蒙古族的艺术新浪潮。他的作品的特别之处，在于它偏离了蒙古族的传统艺术模式，譬如大多数蒙古艺术作品都会出现马、狼、游牧战士和大荒原等形象。相反，他的作品多为超现实主义的肖像画，这些肖像画往往是以他自己或他身边的人为原型创作的。通过自己的艺术，他展现出自己对现代蒙古人所经历的挣扎的看法，譬如是民族认同问题危机，或是蒙古人民对这个民族过去辉煌历史的集体缅怀。因此，尽管他的风格不拘于传统，他仍被蒙古人们视为是创作正宗蒙古艺术的艺术家。
A recent visit to his studio took us to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar city and into the basement of a newly built apartment complex. The space, sparsely decorated and dimly lit, is split into two rooms. The second room belongs to Lkhagvadorj, a local artist who’s sharing the space. Orkhontuul tells us that the primary reason for choosing this location was because of affordability – the two artists have a rather unorthodox arrangement with the landlord where they’re allowed to pay rent with their paintings. The secondary reason is because of its remoteness; it’s even an hour-long commute for Orkhontuul himself to get there, but this was a deliberate decision, as he wants to discourage frequent visitors and focus on his work without distractions. Undeterred by Orkhontuul wishes of being left alone to his art, we sat down with him and had a long chat about the challenges of being an artist in Mongolia and breaking free from “generic Mongolian art.”
Neocha: Did you choose art or did art choose you?
Orkhontuul: It’s not that I wanted or chose to be an artist like you would choose a profession. I think some people can choose their profession, but for example, artists like painters, musicians, singers and composers are not privy to that because they can’t choose their talent. I believe talent is something predestined. Unlike other artists, I would say I’m lucky, in that none of my family members have expressed disapproval in me drawing or painting. My father is a composer, so I think him being an artist probably helped me continue down this path. Either way, my family probably had no way to stop a kid who started painting before he could even crawl.
Neocha: Your paintings capture the hardships and struggles of modern Mongolians. Why are these issues so important to you?
Orkhontuul: I think everyone in Mongolia has their own feelings on the current state of things. But as an artist I just see and feel it as images so I express it in that way. There are people, like journalists, who can explain whats happening today with their writing, but someone like me just can’t explain it with words. My art is just what I have seen and experienced in our society, which at times, might be what I feel to be injustices. These things just come out as a painting for me. I’m not trying to advocate for any cause or use my art as like a banner or an ad for something. I am just painting what I see, but I don’t strictly paint images focused on social commentary.
Neocha: Are you actively searching for inspiration or do you just have spontaneous “lightbulb” moments?
Orkhontuul: It varies. Sometimes inspiration just comes to me when I’m walking down the street. It comes from things I hear or see. I think artists should be very acute and peckish. Since my student days, I’ve constantly searched for things that can inspire me, and because of that tendency, I’ve learned a lot and am even more eager to search out the next thing that can inspire me. If something sparks my interest then I’ll try to make something out if it.
Neocha: Most Mongolian art is littered with generic subjects like horses, wolves, beautiful woman, and so on. What are your thoughts on the prevalence of these subject matters in Mongolian art?
Orkhontuul: I think some of these paintings have a different purpose from art. Some artists draw these things not because they want to, but they have to make a living. These types of paintings should not be considered art in my opinion. I, for one, would never paint a wolf just for the purpose of making money. I might use an image of a wolf if I’m trying to express something specific in my paintings, but I’ll never think that I should incorporate a certain element because it’s the norm.
Neocha: Can you tell us about this piece named “Mother”? It’s quite different from some of your other work, and there’s quite a lot to digest in the frame.
Orkhontuul: This painting is actually based on a real person that I met. I don’t have many interests or hobbies in life except for painting and traveling. I love to travel. There were times just on a whim I would just hitch a ride to the countryside. One time, when I was on a train, an old lady barged into my cabin holding a bottle of vodka, and with a growly voice, she said “Let’s share a drink.” She was one of those ladies that goes to China to buy cheap goods and sell it here at the local market. And maybe because of her profession and stress, she looked more like a man than a woman. All the joy she had seemed to have faded away. She told me she does to support her family. And that is why in the painting she has four breasts – every breast represents one of her children. Her missing face represents the losing her feminine identity, and the pigeons are her stressful thoughts of feeding her hungry children. The missing puzzle pieces are things that left her life – husband and love. She has a penis because she had to essentially “become a man” to live, but the silhouette of the many arms that surround her is meant to represent that she is still a goddess. That’s what I wanted to portray but other people might look at it and see something different.
Neocha: It sounds there’s a lot of contemplation involved in how you want to present your messages. How long does it usually take you to complete a painting from start to finish?
Orkhontuul: I can’t truly say. I usually start on a painting, and I’ll stop and comeback to it later. I usually don’t think about it when I start on a certain painting. Sometimes, a piece might take me more than a year to finish, but the actual time I spend putting my brush to canvas probably isn’t longer than a month. I am one of those people who will get frustrated or hate what I am painting if I force myself to finish a painting when the inspiration isn’t there. For some artists, there are paintings that might’ve taken them more than ten years to finish. If the painter paints without stopping, he or she would have produced hundreds of paintings like that. It takes them that long because something will go wrong – they might have gone into a rut, they might have to do research, maybe they’re just not feeling it, or maybe the painting turns into something they did not want or expect. Sometimes, they might just want to scrap it altogether.
Neocha: You seem quite empathetic towards the hardships of other people, but what are some of the challenges that you yourself face as an artist in Mongolia?
Orkhontuul: You do have to pick up odd jobs and work on commissions to earn money and make a living. It’s impossible to just work on your own art and make a living off of that. But, the way I see it is that whenever I’m working these odd jobs, I’m buying time for myself to pursue what I want to paint.