NEARLY THIRTY YEARS have passed since Mongolia burst out from under the domination of the Soviet overlords who had forced the entire culture into a Marxist-Leninist mode. During the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s, some twenty thousand to thirty-five thousand Mongols—mostly intellectuals, Buddhist clergy, political dissidents, and minorities—were executed. The Russians, remembering thirteenth-century massacres of unsuspecting townspeople by hordes of Mongolian warriors, refused to allow public mention of Genghis Khan, the famed warlord whose armed horsemen built the largest contiguous empire in world history. Use of the ancient Mongolian script called bichig was suppressed, and the Cyrillic alphabet was made mandatory for public writing.
Once the Soviets left, many ancient traditions were revived. Religions that had been oppressed, such as Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism, sprang back to life. And, thanks to numerous evangelical missionaries who descended on the country in the early 1990s, a newer faith sprang up: a vibrant nondenominational Christianity. There were almost no openly practicing Christians in Mongolia before 1990, so those who joined this nascent community usually came from nominally Buddhist or communist backgrounds.
As the years have passed, artists have sprung up from this community, creating a new genre of Christian nomadic art. While visiting the country last July, I got to meet several of these artists, who gathered in the three-story studio house of the Union of Mongolian Artists in northeastern Ulaanbaatar, just behind the American embassy. Each spoke with me about their vision for a new kind of art, one inspired by ancient Mongolian traditions that would honor their faith and their country.
One was Sanchir Darisuren, a sculptor who has drawn up plans for a twenty-four-foot bronze statue of Alan Gua, a ninth-century Mongolian queen. He’s created a large maquette of her on a galloping horse, showing the youngest of her five sons how to shoot a bow and arrow. The son, Bodonchar Munkhag, born sometime around 900 AD, would become a renowned fighter and a direct ancestor of Genghis Khan. Bodonchar is shown as a small child. His mother, crowned by a foot-high boghtaq—a cone-shaped headdress worn by Mongolian queens—sits regally in the saddle, her hair flowing in the wind behind her, one hand stretched toward the viewer in welcome.
As I was admiring the piece, Darisuren whipped out a proposal for how he would fulfill a commission for this sculpture, which he estimates would cost around 700 million tugriks, or just over 262,000 dollars. “That would pay for materials and my time,” he says. “I love doing sculptures of scenes from Mongolian history. My grandfather was a historian and linguist—the first Mongolian to study French abroad.”
Of the hundreds of evangelical missionaries who moved from around the world to influence Mongolia’s unchurched youth, one was a Finn who converted Darisuren, at the time a twenty-three-year-old communist. As the years passed, other artists also converted, and they coalesced in 2015, calling themselves the Christian Artists Association of Mongolia, or CAAM (the C is pronounced as an S). The name is a play on words, as “saam” means horse milk in Mongolian. Mongols have depended on their mounts for transport and food since at least 1400 BCE, and their success in conquering much of the known world more than two thousand years later was due to horses bred for endurance and the ability to withstand subzero winters.
Meeting in an office belonging to Byambajav Tsend-Ochir, a calligrapher who renders Bible verses in bichig script, the artists told me what it feels like to be a tiny minority. (According to the 2010 census, Christians made up 2.1 percent of Mongolia’s population.) Most of these painters are first-generation Christians, the first in their families to convert from either atheism, Buddhism, or shamanism. Unlike westerners, who have been immersed in centuries of Christian art, these artists have had little access to that cultural stream.
The edgiest artist in the group was Bolorchimeg Tsogtbaatar, a quiet, intense woman with large Harry Potter-style spectacles who wore her short hair pulled back in a ponytail. She likes to paint animals, especially leopards and wolves. She uses traditional Mongolian images in a haunting woodcut of Eve on a horse: the world’s first woman seated on Mongolia’s national icon. Eve’s hair is done up like a Mongolian princess’s, and she is surrounded by a blue cloud. The horse’s blue eyes are rendered in liquid glass.
“Most of the people in the art community are not Christian,” she told me. “We’re treated like outsiders.” Before her conversion five years ago, she says, “I used to draw whatever I wanted because I wanted cool-looking paintings with much more sexual content and skulls, symbolizing death. I thought skulls were cool and sexy. Now I try to paint with meaning.”
Despite prejudice from other artists, and while holding down other jobs to make ends meet, ten of them showcased some thirty works in a first-ever exhibit of Mongolian Christian art this past June at the Mongolian Artists Exhibition Hall, just off of Sükhbaatar Square in the center of Ulaanbaatar. Between five and six hundred people attended.
Dugermaa Vanluu, pastor of Zion Light City Church in Ulaanbaatar and a revered elder statesman among Mongolian evangelicals, spoke at the exhibit’s opening. “CAAM is a good idea,” he told me. “In Europe, art played a role in the growth of Christianity, so this is a good way to penetrate our society. Just preaching the pure Gospel no longer attracts people here like it once did. We’re hoping art can also connect ancient Mongolian traditions to Christianity.”
Vanluu, who plays four traditional Mongolian instruments as a way of demonstrating that traditional practices fit in with Christianity, says that the arts have not been part of the conversation among evangelicals there. Evangelical Christianity in Mongolia has been very cerebral, he said, and believers generally are not familiar with the important role Christianity played in medieval Mongolian culture.
Christianity arrived in Mongolia sometime in the mid-seventh century through the Nestorians, a sect founded by Nestorius, the fifth-century bishop of Constantinople, who was accused of heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Charged with compromising the divine nature of Jesus, he was imprisoned, and his followers left for Persia, where they would not be persecuted. Nestorian Christianity continued eastward, arriving in east Asia via monks traveling the Silk Road about two centuries later. Several tribes adopted Christianity near the end of the first millennium, and by the early twelfth century, just prior to Genghis Khan’s era, the central Asian steppe included a sizeable population of Nestorian Christians.
Today’s Mongol Christians revere these Nestorians, despite their theological differences. Darisuren cast a bronze miniature of the Nestorian Queen Dokuz and her husband, King Hulegu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, sitting together on a throne after the sack of Baghdad in 1258. (In the west, the event was seen as a horrific massacre—one in which ninety thousand to two hundred thousand people died. The Mongols saw it as a necessary defeat of the Abbasid caliphate.) Hulegu was one of many Mongol khans to take Christian wives from the Nestorian tribes, and Queen Dokuz influenced her pagan husband to protect the Christians in his vast dominion and to allow many churches to be built.
Other artists look more toward the future than the past. As we talked, an enormous painting—about six by four feet—hovered above us. It depicts an Aslan-like winged white lion in a bank of clouds under a circular rainbow, symbolizing eternity. Batbayer Dorjpalam, a painter who is also CAAM’s president, took three years to complete the painting, which is based on Isaiah 31:4: “As a lion or a young lion growls over its prey…so the Lord of hosts will come down to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.” The lion’s blue eyes, he says, symbolize the humanity of Christ, the lion of Judah.
“When people saw it, they reacted really well,” he adds. “I explained God to people as they saw it.” Most of the people who attended the exhibit had no background in the Bible and its imagery of lions, rainbows, and winged beings. “Our goal is to share the Gospel with our society and with non-Christian artists,” says Dorjpalam, who is an elder in a local evangelical church. “Art is the most powerful weapon in our society. It’s like a voice. Catholics invest in art, so why shouldn’t we? Of course, each person here attends a different church, but our art unites us. We ask how God can use us, how we can be of help to the body of Christ.”
He admits the group is somewhat sheltered. Few have spent time overseas to immerse themselves in other art traditions, much less market their own work. Four of them attended a Christian artists’ seminar in the Netherlands in July in order to get some creative cross-pollination and begin to form networks. Still, “Mongolians have a unique culture,” he said. “It’s Asian and nomadic. Christian nomadic art is a new thing. We can speak through our artwork because this world is dark.”
CAAM banded together last May to paint and illustrate the walls of a local mental hospital where they also teach art therapy. Several years ago the late Zuraach Sodnomtseren, a noted Mongolian artist, asked CAAM member Baigalmaa Lkhaqvasuren to teach a weekly art class in studio. The idea was to show professional women that they too could paint. I visited that studio, on the second floor of the Union of Mongolian Artists’ house. A welter of canvases, tubes of oil paint in various stages of use, easels, famous art prints (Van Gogh particularly), stools, and palettes lay strewn about. When Sodnomtseren offered the use of his studio, “I understood that God was going to use art as a mission purpose,” Lkhaqvasuren told me. One of her students is now considering converting to Christianity.
One of Sodnomtseren’s paintings, a large canvas showing a stylized rendition of the word “Mongol” in bichig script in rainbow colors, hung on one wall. Zesee Sodnomtseren, Zuraach’s daughter and an art professor at the University of Finance and Economics in Ulaanbaatar, says the spectrum of colors represents Mongolia’s place as a nexus between the old and new, linking its ancient greatness with its present state. Since her father’s death, she has encouraged Lkhaqvasuren to continue her classes.
Other artists I interviewed were dabbling in various media. Enkhtuvshin Bayaraa, an art teacher, learned wood burning from a female pastor and now works in woodcuts. One of her pieces, an eagle gazing at a tree, appeared in the June exhibition. A former Buddhist, she was in a psychiatric hospital because of severe depression when another artist, Yanjmaa Jutmaan, came and prayed over her. “I got healed,” she said. “I was out of the hospital in a few hours.”
Jutmaan combines social protest with her art. One of her most arresting paintings is of a traditionally dressed Mongolian woman, her face partially covered by a mask. The work is a protest against the crippling pollution that Mongolians endure during their long winters, when the massive burning of coal for fuel in Ulaanbaatar’s slums creates thick black smog that blankets the city.
Munguntsetseg Gaanjuur, a fashionably dressed artist who once planned to go into clothing design, combines art with psychiatry because of her own experience with healing. She became a Christian in 2007, then got very ill. “I had heard that if you pray to Jesus Christ, you might get healed,” she said. “I’d never met any Christians, but I started praying: Jesus, if you are alive, heal me.” She did this for three months. “One day I was in my living room when I saw a very bright light and heard a voice. The voice said, You’re healed. So I went to a bookstore and bought a Bible.” She has since brought her family members into Christianity. She scrapes by on meager profits from odd jobs and sales of her acrylic paintings on Mongolian warrior themes. “Christian artists in Mongolia aren’t supported by anyone, so we are alone,” she said. “Many times I’ve heard the voice of God and seen visions. I want to draw those visions.”
Endula Damdinsuren, an art teacher at a Salvation Army school in town, produces pastels of biblical scenes. One is a cubist version of a dancing Delilah. Another depicts the praise-filled Psalm 150. Instead of ancient Israelites, it shows three women in traditional Mongolian dress with ceremonially braided hair playing central Asian instruments such as the tsuur (flute), toyshur (three-stringed lute), and yatga (zither). “I used to draw Buddha idols, because my husband was alcoholic and I wanted the gods to deliver him,” she said. “A fellow artist told me about Jesus.” She started attending a church. Her husband has yet to accompany her, but he has stopped drinking. “All of my family were artists,” she said. Of her conversion to Christianity: “My family was not happy. They burned my Bibles twice.” Other artists tend to avoid the Christians, she says. “It’s not bullying, but we are treated like outsiders.”
I asked around outside of the group to see if anyone had heard of CAAM. Sarantuya Byambajav, director of the Mongolian National Art Gallery, had not. “But there are many groups out there, like the LGBT people,” who tend to cluster together, she said. Her gallery skirts religious themes—at least in the pieces I saw displayed last summer—but features some contemporary Buddhist art postcards in its gift shop by artists such as D. Batmunkh and R. Chinzorig. Still, even Mongolia’s most famous artists have a tough time breaking into major markets outside of Asia. Before I left, Byambajav begged me to let her know if I ran into any art galleries in Seattle (where I live) that would like to host an installation from her museum.
Vanluu applauds the use of imagination to get non-Christian Mongols interested in the faith. “People are attracted to visual things, like Buddhist idols,” he says. “With the Nestorians, it’s mainly written material that we have. There’s nothing to visually attract people.”
Darisuren and Dorjpalam hope that someone, somewhere, will realize that Christians have an eye-catching history in Mongolia—and will ask them to demonstrate that by bringing one of their statue prototypes into being. Nomadic art in Mongolia naturally tends toward the spiritual, toward nature and one’s connection with it. Where some painters might want to incorporate shamanistic elements, these evangelical artists say the country’s Christian roots provide more than enough connection to God.
Julia Duin is a Seattle-based journalist who has written for the Houston Chronicle, Washington Times, and Washington Post. She is the author of seven books, the latest on young Pentecostal serpent-handlers in Appalachia.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.