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Amarsanaa Galmandakh

In 1973 when Amarsanaa was born, Mongolia was still a communist country. His father was an army officer, which was a job many people could be proud of and created great opportunities for some. However for many people it felt like a betrayal because as the ancestors of Genghis Khan, Mongolian people did not favor the idea of being occupied by a foreign country. It was only a few hundred years previous, under the leadership of the country’s hero Genghis Khan, that the Mongolian empire dominated almost three continents. The Mongolians attacked, plundered and occupied one after another of their neighbors, pushing as far west as Europe, led first by Genghis Khan and later by his sons and grandsons. They occupied China and would also have taken Japan, had they not been stopped by a great storm. However, around five hundred years later, where our story of Amarsanaa begins, the tables were turned and Mongolia was an occupied country, hemmed in between the two great nations of China and Russia. Leading up to the start of the twentieth century, 200 years of Chinese terror had left Mongolia wounded and bleeding and in 1921 Russia helped them to set the country free. This though was a double-edged sword, as Russian occupation brought with it its own rules, as Mongolia was, and still is, in a strategic position on the world map. Many of the young men in the Mongolian army had enlisted simply because it was a guarantee of survival. Most hoped that the occupation would soon come to an end but no one knew for certain when that might be. The submission to the Russians was an act of gratitude for being freed from the Chinese and the choice between Russia and China was widely seen as the lesser of two evils. Simple rural Mongolians knew little about politics, but just that the Chinese were bad and the Russians were less bad. A baby boy was born into a military family in a small remote village , but what a clash of characters! Amarsanaa was a free spirit, curious and full of fantasy, yet pitted against the autocracy of his father the army officer. They were a challenge to each other from the very beginning, his father’s discipline and hard hand against Amarsanaa’s delicate, sensitive and shy personality. Only his mother ……….. recognized the similarity to her own character and tried to shield the young boy from the harshness of his father. It was his mother who introduced Amarsanaa (Amar for short) to the world of painting. Her parents, his grandparents, doted on the boy, noting his quest for knowledge and had an inkling that he would grow up to be a special man. And for his fourth birthday, his mother bought him a set of colored pencils. This was the first thing to trigger Amar’s talent for new thinking and for seeing things in terms of colors. He clearly remembers marveling at the shiny new colors and their magnificent potential. He grasped a few of them at once in his small hand and created rainbows, using different colors each time. The finished result was a symbol of beauty that has remained in his mind for his whole life, representing the wonder of nature. If you ask him today what he sees as the most beautiful thing in the word the reply will be quick: “a rainbow.” Amar saw things in a very different way from the very beginning. He was his mothers favored child, the eldest son of five and his grandparents “precious boy.” While his three younger brothers and older sister lived with his parents full-time, he was granted the special treat of staying with his grandparents during his holidays. They lived in the north of Bulgan province, where the beauty of the area made a great impression on him. He spent his school days in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, waiting for spring to come. Even as a young boy, Amar demonstrated an awe and admiration for nature that was to stay with him as a man and painter. From a young age, he had an insatiable curiosity that marked him out from other children. He saw the mountains and longed to reach the top. He wanted to be higher than anyone else and yearned to view the world in a new way. He wanted to know what lay beyond the mountains. The herdsmen in the countryside were slightly unnerved by precocious little boy as he gathered scattered bones and debris that littered the ground in the aftermath of the big blizzards that frequently terrorized the countryside and studied these “treasures” with such detail. Amar admits to being an unusual child who inspired a latent fear in the men who he lived amongst. His parents did not attempt to sate his curiosity and instead encouraged him in his wonderment of the world. His father saw the potential artist in his son and let this burgeoning creative spirit develop in a nurturing environment. As well as being a senior officer in the army, the father was a patron and friend of the arts, with a coterie of poets and artists that frequented his home including the noted artist Baramsai and the poets Renchin and Lativ. Thus Amarsanaa grew up in a household where culture and art was celebrated even under the repressive regime of communism. This was not to say that the socialist system did not exert its strangling influences. Amarsanaa gives the example of the poet Choinom, a good friend of his father, who was imprisoned for his allegedly inflammatory work. On his release, he came to the house of Amarsanaa’s father. There were many tears that night, both in joy at Choinom`s safe return and frustration and sadness that the current political climate was such that great artists were not free to publish their work without persecution. Although only a young boy at the time Amarsanaa remembers the night very well. The noise was such that he could not sleep. He could sense the excitement in the air and feeling restless crept into the room where he promptly hid under the table. All night long, he listened to the conversation, the laughs and the sighs, the shouts and the silences. He was too young to fully comprehend what had happened but he knew enough to understand the inherent injustice in the communist regime. He knew there was something wrong even though he could not articulate it. This feeling was reinforced even more strongly several years later at an age when he would not easily forget injustice of a personal kind. Now in eighth grade, aged sixteen, his sense of justice was even more acute and when his father was incriminated Amarsanaa realized that even he was unable to escape unscathed from the stringent laws enforced by the government. His father’s fall from favor was connected with the politician Tomor-Ochir, who was exiled from Ulaanbaatar because of his vocal attacks on communism. Amarsanaa’s father opposed this exile and enabled Tomorchir to return to Ulaanbaatar. When this was discovered, the father was fired from his job. After this, he was never able to maintain gainful employment for any length of time, repeatedly being fired from a series of jobs not because he was bad worker but because the influence of politics reached him everywhere. One could not go unpunished for acts that the communist party did not like. Previously protected by the government as a high-ranking officer he was blacklisted as a troublemaker because of what he had done and the circle of friends he kept. Thereafter, a period of dark days started in the home of young Amarsanaa, as his father started drinking with increasing regularity. He was more mellow when drunk and children preferred being around him when he was like this, as he seemed more fun, loving and generous and his drunkenness was therefore tolerated at home. But it became increasing embarrassing for Amarsanaa to have to fetch his father home from the houses of his drinking friends. He felt ashamed of his father and took the shortest route walking home, attempting to avoid being seen by his neighbors. He became so frustrated with the situation that he later refused to obey his mother’s instructions to collect his father. Amarsanaa was no psychologist but it was clear to him that his father had given up hope of being able to live an honorable life. His father drunk himself to death aged just 50. Sixteen-year-old Amarsanaa could plainly see that morality and the state did not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Feeling great anger towards the government, he looked to the West for a time when freedom of expression would not be prohibited and artists who held different views to those of the state would not have to work in secret. However, despite this, Amarsanaa still hankered to be an artist. With the country still under communism, after graduating from high school he applied to study at art school in Ulaanbaatar. However he was refused entry because of the physics and chemistry components of the entrance examination. While he excelled in literature and art, science had always been Amarsanaa’s weakest subject and he was forced to face the possibility that he would never become an artist. Not someone to admit defeat, he instead decided that he wished to become the student of two people whose work he greatly admired: the artist Baidy who was based in Ulaanbaatar and the poet Mishig who lived 900 miles away in Khovd. Amarsanaa recalls his father’s words “Do not go to Khovd – it is so far away from home. Amar stay in Ulaanbaatar.” Thus the fates were decided – Amarsanaa was to become an artist. He wryly acknowledges that had he gone to Khovd he might now be a poet instead. He began his studies with Baidy, who on his first day presented him with three brushes and then left. It was not until Amarsanaa had learnt how to use the brushes that Baidy was willing to teach him. It was Baidy who taught him the importance of hard work. “You may have talent but without effort it is useless. It is within the individual’s power to work to their fullest. You must labor hard if you are ever to achieve anything of note. Only after you have worked hard will your talent be able to shine through,” he was told. Amarsanaa took this lesson to heart and worked harder than ever before. He was under Baidy’s tutelage for a year, but even now, fifteen years later, he continues to regard Baidy as a mentor and meets with him two or three times a year to discuss his work. The collapse of communism in 1990 prompted Amarsanaa to make a renewed effort to go to art school and he reapplied that year. At the same time he applied to university in Russia where he was accepted to train as a pilot in Leningrad. On receiving this news Amarsanaa thought that he would become a pilot and put away his brushes. His last attempt at being an artist was to enter his work into a competition entitled “Talent” where there was the opportunity to exhibit his paintings. To his surprise he won the competition and was immediately offered a place at art school. Despite an initial indecisiveness he decided upon art school because he knew, as did his family, that art was his natural calling. Amarsanaa studied at the Institute of Fine Art for five years and it was here that he would really develop his talent. For the first time he was able to express himself freely without fear of persecution. He could not equate his high school years under communism to his time at art school under a blossoming democracy. It was while he was in the first grade of art school that he learnt for the first time how hard it is to earn a living as an artist. He watched with great interest how one of the more senior students made his living selling small paintings of Buddhist deities. Together with some of his colleagues, the students bought paper and paints and set to work painting hundreds of pictures to sell to tourists. Once finished, the students stationed themselves outside a busy temple, but failed to sell a single picture. Eventually the only offer they had was from the older student who made his living painting, and he bought the students pictures for one dollar. Although Amarsanaa and his contemporaries were discouraged, it motivated them to work harder in the hope that they would have better success in the future. Amarsanaa was greatly influenced by his professor, Bumandors, who attended the Barhaus art school in Germany and on returning to Mongolia brought back a collection of German art books. Amarsanaa was particularly interested in these books as they showed modern and innovative artistic techniques that looked forward to the new rather than the art that was stuck in the stagnant Russian-influenced communist era. Amarsanaa also took an interest in traditional Mongolian Buddhist art, which had been heavily repressed during most of the twentieth century. However, he did not merely want to produce poor copies of German or ancient Mongolian art but instead wanted to create something new. Many of his paintings, although depicting traditional Mongolian costumes, are stylized, using sharp, bright colors. In art school he felt that he could not express himself using the simple palate of colors that are traditionally used in Mongolian art. What excited Amarsanaa was the freedom to change the way he painted. “Before 1990, these pictures would not be possible as people would not understand them. Now I am free.” This independence is evident throughout Amarsanaa’s work, which is demonstrative of great variety. He has worked in different mediums, with especial interest in sculpture and painting. He has also done considerable research into ancient Mongolian clothing, drawing many detailed, intricate sketches. Amarsanaa wants to make a firm record of what Mongolians wore 1000 years ago and preserve it in art. He has also written and illustrated five books for children in which the style of drawing is simple and clear.  At the moment however, his main focus is on painting. Many of his current paintings are highly stylized and depict angular, surreally blue horses reminiscent of the Trojan horse of Greek mythology. He later intends to take these horses into another medium by creating sculptures of them that he will consider displaying in a winter exhibition. He is always on the lookout for new ideas. He does not want to do one thing, but many. His ambition is strong. “As an artist it is imperative to stay interested in everything. Artists who become fixed on a single concept become blind and deaf to the world.” Amarsanaa complements his painting with extensive travel throughout Mongolia. This love of the countryside and nature is reflected in his art, which is populated with animals and augmented by the backdrop of the steppe. Amarsanaa in fact used to have a vulture for a pet, which he described as “a great friend, apart from the smell!” Pets aside, his more serious pursuits include lecturing at the Institute of Fine Art for 24 hours a week as well as working towards a PhD in Fine Art. He spends the rest of his working hours in his studio, often until ten in the evening. For Amarsanaa art is not just work, it is a way of life. He paints to find himself.  It is the action of creating art that leads to a purpose. Amarsanaa views are stalwart on this subject. “I paint to paint. My aim will only become apparent through the painting. Artists who produce work for an audience are not being true to their art. Their work is merely artifice.” More than anything Amarsanaa thinks that art should stem from real feeling and emotion. This is perhaps demonstrated most clearly by the influence of love and relationships on his artwork. He met his first love ……… whilst still at art school and from this time there was a visible change in his painting. The burgeoning relationship enabled him to express himself better and he describes how he felt like an eagle, flying with open wings across the world and observing the beauty of nature. The colors in his work became more intense, depicting almost fairytale scenarios and his love carried him forward for five years, seeing women as rainbows in the sky. However the rainbows came to a stop when the love finished and the relationship came to an end. He was left with dark clouds in the sky and a broken heart. To this day, the depictions of women in Amarsanaa’s paintings are in dark colors and all have the same face as……. He says this is not something he ever plans to do, but as he paints, his hands unconsciously fashion the same face. What drives Amarsanaa now is to find a technique unique to him. He does not want his painting to fit in a pre-determined category nor to paint to please others but to satisfy himself. Traditional painters may declaim his work, deriding his use of oil on canvas and colors which seem too bright. Modern artists may scorn his purported “modern art” which contains landscapes and images of Mongolians in traditional dress , but Amarsanaa does not care. He continues to paint only to better himself. Although he has been painting for 15 years, he says but he cannot call himself a painter until he has truly been satisfied with his work. This is what makes him paint: the effort to push himself further. However, he always starts his work in the same way. He thinks in color and it is colors that first come to mind when he paints. This is another lesson from his esteemed professor Bumandors who told him to think first of color because without color there is nothing. Shapes and objects come later. Amarsanaa cannot always say where his paintings come from. He places the colors next to each other seeing how they bring out different emotions and moods. The shapes come out of the colors from somewhere in the deep recesses of his unconscious. Images insidiously implant themselves in his mind, two women on a bench, a dancing girl. Their silhouettes materialize on paper. At first, he does not know whether they are old or young but slowly they come to fruition. Not many painters may understand the way his work develops but the artist Duinharjab paints with a similar technique. Amarsanaa says that he is one of the few artists with whom he can identify. Duinharjab’s work was repressed during the communist era because the authorities did not understand and felt threatened by it. Now, in more enlightened times he is a famous painter. Amarsanaa also has great admiration for several Eastern European artists, notably the Yugoslav artist Krsto Hegedusic who portrays his native land in beautiful somber detail. He also loves the work of Picasso for the depth and variety of his art. Amarsanaa feels that these artists have influenced him while at the same time he still retains a firm respect for Mongolian art. Melded in with all the modern influences his work nevertheless has a secure base in Mongolian culture and his landscapes are distinctively from the land of the vast steppe and eternal blue sky. Educational Background: 1980-1989 50th and 17th secondary school of Ulaanbaatar 1991-1993 Fine Art College 1994-1997 Fine Art Institute 2000-2002 Educational Management, Master Degree to present studying Doctor Degree Work Experience: 1998-1999 Monro Impex company, a designer 2002-present Fine Art Institute, teacher
  • 1998 – 2000 The UMA Artist Hunter
  • 1999 Our Graphic our colour
  • 1999 Space “A Person of Steppe”
  • 2000 International woman’s day “A portrait of a woman”
  • 2001 Space “On the path”
  • 2002 Germany Embassy
  • 2003 Best painters’ exhibition “A portrait of woman”
  • 2004 Mongolian art exhibition “Noise”
  • 2005 Mongolian young artists’ exhibition “On hunting”
  • 2005 “Test of Mongolian artist” Milano Italy
  • 2005 “Colour of Life” Solo exhibition
  • 2007 Mongolian Kingdom of the horse, Arndean Gallery, London
  • 2007 Art Ireland, Dublin, Ireland
  • 2008 Art Expo New York
  • 2008 Beijing International art Expo, Beijing, China
  • 2008 Art Fair 2008, Dublin, Ireland
  • 2008 The Cork Art Fair, Cork city, Ireland
  • 2008 Art Ireland, Dublin, Ireland
  • 2009 Equine affair, Pomona, CA. USA
  • 2009 Art Ireland Spring Collection 09
  • 2009 Art Fair Europe 09
  • 2009 Callow Yard Art Exhibition. Isle of man
  • 2010 Art Expo New York
  • 2010 “Art Shopping” Carrousel Du Louvre, Paris, France
  • 2010 “International Equestrian Festival 2010” Downtown Lexington, Kentucky, USA