15 min read · Aug 11, 2022
What do we expect from a contemporary Mongolian artist? Will this work relate to earlier Mongolia art? Or to contemporary art elsewhere in Asia? Or to contemporary art in Europe or in the Americas? Or will it reflect both the culture and life of the artist and, thus, the history of Mongolia? What we find in the work of Zayasaikhan Sambuu is all of the above.
Zayasaikhan Sambuu, who is better known as “Zaya,” was born in 1975 in Baatsagaan, a small town near Mongolia’s southern border, some 625 km (about 388 miles) from the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Not far from the Gobi desert, the terrain is more of a mix of desert and mountainous pasture. Zaya recalls Baatsagaan as “a remote sum [district], a small village of about hundred families, with no museums, no art school, no electricity and no access to information, almost like an aboriginal village. Zaya remembers that his childhood home in Baatsagaan was filled with more books than the town library and that his father was always reading.
This inspired the young boy, who loved to draw, to read - especially during school vacations, at least when he was not making art. “I remember I started painting when I was in the first or second grade. Back then, I did not draw freely, but used to like to copy a lot. I copied a lot from socialist era propaganda books with quotes and illustrations of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, or the famous Pushkin, as these were around my household. I copied their portraits by candlelight. My father used to encourage these drawings. I still have some of these portraits”.
Upon graduation in 2002, Zaya made his first trip ever out of Mongolia, traveling to the United States. Having had the luck to obtain a multiple tourist visa, he traveled first to San Francisco. He recalls that he first saw in a gallery there a show of original prints by Picasso, making a connection with the earlier lessons from his father about modern art. Then Zaya found a gallery in Sausalito, just a ferry ride across the bay, which took an interest in his paintings, some of which he produced while in California.
Later, this gallery sold two of his pictures and asked him for more images of women, but without the warriors that he often included. Until today, he continues to enjoy painting images of Mongolian women.
When I asked Zaya why his paintings so often feature musical instruments, he referred to someone who had once asked why he painted mostly women. He retorted, “Since I am the man, I don’t need another man in my life,” which he admitted he saw as a kind of joke and then elaborated, “Perhaps I thought my girls needed a spouse and it could be musical instruments and music”.
He has taken his own spiritual and actual journeys around the planet, making multiple visits to the United States and to Europe, learning something about the art of those cultures first hand. In his art, Zaya not only looks deep into his own Mongolian identity, but he also works in his areas of cultural hybridity. In Korea, he found a spouse and the mother of his children from a third Asian culture - Japan. She also became a singular model. For many years, Zaya lived and worked in Japan, absorbing its culture from the vantage point of an outsider, all the while learning more about his own Mongolian identity.
How does Zaya continually express and explore both that Mongolian identity and cultural hybridity in his paintings? I would like to suggest that recurring in his paintings, from youth to the present, the most common leitmotif - a motif or theme associated throughout a music drama with a particular person, situation, or idea-is the concept of music itself. Music (and its component sound) as a theme or a source throughout Zaya’s work occurs in his art from his earliest work.
For example, the Tara, which he painted at the age of fourteen, plays a stringed instrument. He painted Stairway to Heaven in 1991, inspired by a Led Zeppelin song, when he was just sixteen. The next year, when Freddie Mercury of the musical group Queen died, he painted Miss HIV in tribute. Then he painted his graduation artwork Sound of the Steppe, indicating his concern with sound. In 1995, he copied line drawing from traditional Mongol Zurag showing people dancing to music. In his painting, Hunters of 2004, Zaya included stringed musical instruments that suggest his later paintings of musicians.
Ancient Melody of 2006 features female musicians. Listening to music is a theme in Golden Palace from 2008.
Gail Levin “Mongolia Lost and Found”