Mongolia Week 6: Expression

One of my extenuating motivations for selecting Mongolia as one of my preferred internship locations was its richness of calligraphy. As someone who has pursued Arabic calligraphy for the past two or so years, having found both joy but also frustration and stagnation in its study, I thought that it would be beneficial in my development as a calligrapher to spend time in a place like Ulaanbaatar, and absorb as much about the art form from individuals there as possible. What I did not expect was to find and experience so much more than some pieces hanging in a museum. 

Before I dive into how my time with Mongolian calligraphy affected me, I think it is important to first outline the issues I had been experiencing with Arabic calligraphy for a time. First of all, being left-handed and required to use traditional ‘Aqlam, or reed pens, is not a good nor effective combination. The way that these work is very similar to rudimentary fountain pens, but with a few stipulations. When pressed down at an angle, the tines of the pen spread, allowing for ink flow down onto the paper to occur. However, the tip of the pen is cut at an angle that makes obtaining effective inkflow as a left-hander very difficult. While I have in the past attempted to recut pens to allow for more consistent inkflow, this in turn has affected other aspects of the tools’ writing abilities, which in turn reduces my capacity to perform within traditional parameters. With that in mind, I endeavored to create my own style of Arabic, moving over to Chinese brushes and a vertical composition style that coincidentally mirrored that of the Uyghur script employed in Mongolian calligraphy. Thus, a trip to Mongolia could most definitely result in a sort of helpful cross-pollination of styles. 

My first real contact with Mongolain calligraphy in the flesh also ended up being the most impactful. There was a small art gallery with an inventory that rotated monthly near my apartment, and upon the arrival of June, a set of emographic calligraphies by an artist named Tamir Samanbadraa was showcased. Upon talking to the gallery owner about my work, I lucked into a meeting with Tamir, who in turn stated he was impressed with my art and efforts and scheduled a meeting with me. Though it took a long while to eventually find a time and place in which to meet, Tamir taught me about wild expressiveness and individuality in a way that I had never before witnessed, going as far as to instruct me to only “do the exact opposite of what I do, and never use others as points of inspiration, only for criticism.”

A slightly more orthodox experience came on my final day in Mongolia. After meeting another calligrapher employed at the Union of Mongolian Artists, I managed to schedule a brief meeting and time for training at the Union, and was greeted with a much more followable set of instructions as to some traditional Mongolian techniques that I have been practicing ever since.