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A contemporary twist on Mongolian culture

Mongolian artist Monkhor Erdenebayar’s work showcased at the Chinese House reflects traditional colours and subject matter with a modern twist

© Monkhor Erdenebayar

Painting from Travels of Red Horses.

Mongolia is home to some of the world's few remaining wild horses. Travels of Red Horses, an exhibition that opens today at Phnom Penh's Chinese House, showcases the semi-abstract oil paintings of Monkhor Erdenebayar, aka Bayar, and they highlight Mongolia's love for their wild steeds.

There are more than 230 words to describe what colour a horse is in the Mongolian language.

Everything from the fermented mare's milk that is a primary food staple, to transportation and central roles in the nation's cultural and religious ceremonies, revolves around horses.

They represent life, courage and strength, so it is no wonder that, much like Angkor Wat to Cambodians, horses are the most significant and popular subject matter in terms of artistic expression.

A modern traditionalist

Bayar is no exception, but the thing that separates his work from that of other Mongolian artists is his modern twist on traditional subject matter.

"The big break - the big difference for Bayar is that he's created something that's very contemporary.

"Most [other Mongolian artists] are painting realist paintings of horses, but there's nobody doing anything like Baya, where he has taken the horse as the subject matter but broken off and done something randomly," said Brad Gordon, Bayar's tour manager for the exhibition.

Cubist leanings

Bayar's paintings depict boxy, cubist horses with heavy outlines.

He utilizes bright, traditional Mongolian reds, and in his more recent work, he has incorporated shades of blended, muted grays.

"Every painting is different, and there's a lot more going on in the paintings than just simple horses," said Gordon.

The paintings represent a close attachment and deep understanding of the subject matter, human nature and Mongolian culture and tradition.

...He has taken the horse as the subject matter, but broken off and done

something randomly.

"He knows an enormous amount about Mongolian traditional culture and history ... a lot of his paintings actually use traditional colours, and they use some concepts that are very Mongolian in nature," said Gordon.

Traditional life

© Monkhor Erdenebayar

Painting from Travels of Red Horses.

As a young child Bayar was surrounded by horses in the small town where he grew up 24 hours away from the capital city Ulaan Baatar.

His first experience with drawing horses came during a flu epidemic when he was just five or six years old.

All of the schools in his district shut down, and Bayar used this time to study and copy drawings made by his brother and his grandfather.

It wasn't until after the collapse of the iron curtain in 1990, when Mongolia shrugged off communism and turned to democracy, that Bayar began experimenting with abstract styles - painting what he saw in his mind's eye rather than relying on realistic interpretations.

Today, he paints primarily using wooden carvings as his models.

These carvings - some of them more than three hundred years old - have been in his family for generations and were an inspiration to him as a child.

 They were kept in a box and hidden during the communist regime, as any form of traditional expression was illegal.

Today, these carvings are the hallmark of his work, and the reproductions on canvas bring them to life.

"He started carving a lot. He's doing a lot of sculpture, just in the last year. And he's doing sculptures that match the paintings....

"One thing that he's doing is taking a panel of wood and then carving a sculpture that looks like the painting. ... And then, he's doing bronze castings ... but it's three-dimensional of a horse - but the horse, the shapes and everything matches the way he's painting the horses," said Gordon.

Road to success

Bayar studied at the Fine Arts College and the Fine Arts University in Ulaan Baatar, where he moved when he was 16.

Over the past 10 years, his art has become renowned in Mongolia and can be seen throughout the country.

Several documentaries have been made about Bayar and his work, and his paintings have been given as state gifts.

In 1999, he won a Union of Mongolian Artists award, which is one of the most prestigious awards in Mongolia.

He has had shows in Bangkok, India and Singapore, and is considered one of the top contemporary Asian artists.

Bayar plans to exhibit in Tokyo this summer, and he hopes to present his artwork in New York some time in the near future.

Bayar's work is continually evolving, and he is currently creating wood-panel carvings and bronze sculptures of his paintings.

Travels of Red Horses opens at 7pm tonight at the Chinese House and runs until January 24.

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