A young boy in Buryatia, near Lake Baikal in Siberia, hears the tales of his people and Buddhist and Shaman cultures. He is surrounded by nature, far from cities and works with the elders, helps with shepherding and hunting. After being educated at a boarding school, he is accepted to the Krasnoyarsk State Institute of Art and learns to transform his youth's experience of landscape, tradition and cultures into drawings and later sculptures. He finds an artistic language that weaves his experiences and traditions together with an unmistakable style. The world takes notice of his sculptures, drawings and jewelry creations.
Years later he, of Mongol background, creates one of his most important works, a sculpture of historic and mythic figure Genghis Khan. It is erected at Marble Arch in London to rave reviews. The artist is being described as a phenomenon, connecting mythology, history and the modern spirit. And a year later the largest exhibition of his works in the United States to date, "The Nomad: Memory of the Future" comes to New York and is currently on view at the National Arts Club. It is highly recommended to go and see it. Due to popular demand, it is being extended through the end of July.
The artist is Dashi Namdakov. While his art speaks its own wondrous language, the artist was willing to have a conversation about growing up in an artistic family, his inspirations, his views of the art world, his coming to the United States and about being able to describe himself in just ten words.
Namdakov is successful but not (yet) widely know. His works, however, already made it into the collections of prestigious museums, and individuals such as Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Germany's former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, tycoon Roman Abramovich. He was one of a few living artists to be granted a solo exhibition at the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, one of the world's most important museums. When asked about how he sees the development of his career -- from growing up as the sixth of eight children to being a celebrated artist -- he could not have foreseen what the future would hold for him.
I just grew up in a very creative and artistic family, where my parents, brothers and sisters are all engaged in art and craft. I couldn't but follow their way. To be honest, I believe I was destined to implement all the things that have been accumulated over the centuries in the imagery and consciousness of my family and my people. But I'm not the only one. Perhaps it's a personal blessing of working in the open world, famous museums, with wonderful colleagues. And I try to use these features from my very heart.
Where, in the context of art history, would he locate his art? Who shaped his thinking about technique? After all, Namdakov developed a distinct, highly recognizable artistic language, steeped in tradition, myths and culture, that at the same time is looking forward.
Art experts indicate a certain archetype when they talk about my art. Perhaps this is the case. But you should understand that there is the Russian Academic School that informs my technique. I'm a professional sculptor, who knows how to draw and sculpt. This allows me to freely express my thoughts, which is very important. Of course, I know the history of art. And I certainly go to museums often, 'breathe' the ancient artifacts of the East. I love and understand modern sculpture. Therefore, you can see the features of different eras and styles of artists in my work.
Synthesizing these different eras and styles earned his work much praise. It is described as "meditative and intellectual" and compared with the 'fantasy' genre in literature, whose metaphors often arise from the unconscious realm. Does Namdakov agree with that comparison? "Fantasy as a genre of literature appeared in the United Kingdom, and has spread around the world and it could not but influence art, including sculpture. This is my genre, of course." But there is another factor informing his work:
I'm from Buryatia, where Buddhism came in the 17th century from Tibet. My whole life is imbued with the teachings of the Buddha. Even one of my sculptures Little Buddha is located in a Buddhist temple (datsan) near the city of Ulan-Ude in Buryatia. Therefore, many works reflect this process of contemplation of the inner life of humans, animals, some intermediate states.
All these influences come together in an unmistakable style. Renowned art scholar Elena F. Korolkova said of Namdakov's work that it is striking because it was both attractive and strange at the same time. He seems flattered. "This seems like a nice description." While he found a truly original, unique, deep, authentic artistic language one wonders how his work continues to evolve:
I would like to develop, to evolve because it is imperative to move forward. I travel a lot, get in touch with new people and it is all reflected in my work. Now I am interested in large-scale architectural projects. One of them is a huge mammoth skull that had been washed out on the beach of Lake Baikal [in Siberia]. I envision the creation of a Museum of Modern Art of Siberia. I also have many ideas regarding jewelry and decorative arts. I like combinations of bronze, gold, bone, uncut stones and a variety of textures in order to create my own style in this field. Not unlike our ancestors. They created wonderful items out of scrap materials given by nature. The art of the Native Americans, for example, is very similar to the art of the Mongolians with respect to these very characteristics.
While there are similarities between certain characteristics between Native Americans and Mongolians, today's audiences in both places -- certainly in the United States -- are likely to be more removed from those ancient traditions and forms. Celebrated in Russia, Mongolia and China that are hosts to the cultures that inspired him, Namdakov is not (yet) well-known in the United States. The current exhibition, part of the Russian Heritage Month, is an opportunity to acquaint an American audience with Namdakov and his sources of inspiration. What would he want us to take away from an encounter with his work? The artist keeps it simple: "I can say from my experience that art gives pleasure and inspiration. I hope that the American people would feel the same towards my works." It is difficult to imagine to experience anything but pleasure and inspiration viewing "The Nomad: Memory of the Future," only his second exhibition in the United States. It remedies a regrettable situation where Namdakov is not well-known here.
He maintains studios in both Buryatia and Moscow. He currently holds an artist residency in Pietrasanta, Italy, at times described as the City of Sculptors. Having won a prestigious competition, Namdakov now benefits from that city's artistic infrastructure. Is he planning to spend more time in the United States, come more often? "In addition to Moscow and my native Buryatia I work a lot in Italian foundries, and would like to work in the United States that I visited for the first time in 2005." And he adds, genuinely, "I do really like it here: the cities, the people, museums. Probably, that is why I gladly accepted the invitation of Marina Kovalyov, who represents and Russian Heritage Festival and the Russian-American Foundation. Many artists from Russia are getting Marina's support here. The exhibition at the National Arts Club was also organized at her initiative and now all the plans for the future will definitely depend on its success. And more inspiration was found not far from New York. "I already have some ideas regarding working on a landscape sculpture in the USA. We went to the Storm King Museum this time and one cannot remain indifferent to that great museum." He added that he would love to work and "create something special for the United States."
And there is a successful precedent. It was in 2012 that his commissioned 16 feet tall bronze sculpture of Genghis Khan was unveiled in Marble Arch in London last year in April. Namdakov admits that he is proud of the sculpture, adding that it was a difficult process: Can you envision doing such a project in New York City? "I thought for a long time on the sculpture composition [for the London project] while I was not engaged in choosing the place for it. It was clear that such a work is supposed to be exhibited in open space with crowding people and among the active social life." He was not surprised at the positive public reaction, which describes as predictable. "A rider on the horse is an academic theme in art but the character of Genghis Khan raised debate." With regard to a possible work for the United States he adds, that "[o]f course, I could develop the theme of the history of Eurasia in the monumental sculpture in America, where the society is more open and is ready for something new."
Having this current show in New York City, the world's largest art market, begs the question how important it is to Namdakov to be part of the art world, to have galleries represent him and sell his works, to go to international art fairs, to meet other sculptors as well as collectors, to be covered in art magazines. He is genuine about this question:
To tell you the truth, these are the things that I am totally not interested in. That's just not important to me to. I think I would be able to support my family without all these external 'pump.' The caveat? But this was my fate that many people are interested in my art and if I do not sell, do not write, do not exhibit, then this interest would move backward. After all, this is the way the world works now. So, I would like to say many thanks to journalists, museum workers, gallery owners -- my success (artistic as well as commercial) -- would be impossible without them.
There are certain moments in a conversation that seem to encapsulate, to summarize a person's essence. When asked to elaborate on his response to a question in a different interview - please describe yourself in ten words -- Namdakov responds: "Son, husband, father, grandfather, artist, Buddhist, shaman, hunter, nomad, friend." Reminded of his response he smiles and replies in a serious manner: "These are the fundamental characteristics of any person. I respect traditions of my nation. Its morality is based on the simple words and I repeat the same words: family, profession, honor and dignity." And in his profession as an artist he is a phenomenon not to be missed.
"The Nomad: Memory of the Future" is on view at the National Arts Club until July 27, as part of the 11th Annual Russian Heritage Month.