Vignette 02: Gantsatstral

Photographs by CP reprinted here with permission of S.Gantsatstral.

Mongolian (post) soviet socialist Artist: Sukhbaatar Gantsatstral

Entrance foyer, Mongolian Union of Artists (MUA) Building (est.1995) in Ulanbaator in 2008

Entrance foyer, Mongolian Union of Artists (MUA) Building (est.1995) in Ulanbaator in 2008

 The Union of Mongolian Artists (UMA) Building is an old, neat, Soviet-style, three-storey building in the Sukhbaatar District of northern Ulanbaator. One enters the building via a short flight of concrete steps from the small car park adjacent to one of the busiest roads in the nation’s fast growing capital. On entering the building, one finds oneself in a small entrance hall. Here, there are no paintings hung on the walls, only a neat black and white noticeboard with the names of the Mongolian artists currently in residence (see below). In terms of post-soviet socialist ‘local’ reconstruction, the Union of Mongolian Artists first opened its doors in 1995.

On each floor of the UMA Building, including the ground floor, one finds rows of small rooms, each a personal studio of an UMA artist-in-residence. In 2008, if one considered the list of names displayed on the noticeboard an accurate indication (see above), there were 34 artists in residence, fourteen of whom were women.

On my first visit to the UMA in 2008, the floor of each corridor was lined with unobtrusive but well kept, practical and easy to clean thick linoleum. The hallway lighting was minimal, and there were no decorations or paintings mounted or hung on the corridor walls. The sideboards, architraves and walls were freshly painted and the doorway to each studio was clearly numbered. By 2010, the number of artisans-in-residence, now sculptors as well as painters had grown to more than 60 people. See UMA’s organisational website at:

Since 2010, there has been a considerable changeover in the artists who rent a studio on these premises. Mongolian artisans affiliated with the organisation also seem to be coming and going with many now curating exhibitions and installations of their own works in foreign locales. As with much of Ulanbaator, renovation of the UMA premises is ongoing—a seemingly constant ‘work in progress’ affair.

It was in one of the small UMA art studios, that I first met and engaged in conversation the artist about whom I now write. Much of what follows, that which is rendered in italicised text, is a translation into English of Sukhbaatar Gantsatstral’s own words. This vignette was further developed and updated when we were, at Zava Damdin Bagsh’s invitation, artist and writer-in-residence at Delgeruun Choira in Mongolia’s Dundgovi during the late summer months of 2015.

Her eldest daughter B.Enerel, also a trained artist, was the third person in our small group. Over many weeks, we lived and worked together in this remote location focusing on each of our respective creative enterprises. The interesting and   animated conversations (in three languages: Russian, English and Mongolian) in our ger each evening were for me illuminating. Having each spent our day in solitude, in the evenings we would traverse in conversation some of the many topics (and them some) that had arisen in our minds. The intimate and proximal presence of the ‘other’ was the stimulus for our unfolding inter-cultural discourse. All sorts of questions were asked. All kinds of stories were told. ‘Translation’ was just one of the ongoing rapport-building continuities at play.

Gantsatstral graduated from the Mongolian Art College in Ulaanbaatar in 1983 after which she continued her studies, from 1986 until 1994, at The Moscow Art Academy in (Soviet) Russia. From 1983 until she left Mongolia to study in Russia in 1986, she worked for the Committee of Artists in Erdenet, Mongolia’s largest mining town north of Ulanbaator. In 1995 she returned from Russia and began teaching at the Mongolian Art College in Ulanbaator. After seven years, she made the big decision to withdraw from teaching art as a profession, to instead focus on her own painting.

So it was that in 2002, I began working as an independent artist in my own small studio at the UMA premises co-locating with other Mongolian artists with similar aspirations. Since then, Gantsatstral has absorbed herself fully in her work, working in [her] studio on average around 10 to 11 hours each day. There are no weekends, nor are there any days off. Having attended to the necessities of daily life at home each morning, my daughter and I make the long drive to our studio through Ulanbaator’s ‘stop start’ traffic. Most evenings we do not return home until well into the evening, once the choked roads are a little freer of traffic. For all those who live and work in UB, in premises other than their own home, is to endure the considerable frustrations of vehicular commuting, be it by car, truck of bus. If walking, a facemask is a must.

As an independent Mongolian artist, S.Gantsatstral’s work has gained attention and commissions continue to flow in. In 2008 she was acknowledged in Mongolian artistic circles for her most famous artwork, Women: One Mongolian Day (Tuguldur-Uils San, Mongolia: 2007) an artistic collaboration that she completed with T. Begzjav. The following is an edited extract from the introductory notes to Women: One Mongolian Day:

In the 1920s, B.Sharav revolutionised the field of modern art in Mongolia with his painting series known as ‘One Mongolian Day.’ These pictures all concern daily life in the early twentieth century in Mongolia by recounting various daily activities and special events via small watercolour paintings on parchment. [Women: One Mongolian Day] continued this tradition in a large painting of twenty-one [synonymous with the Twenty-One Taras of the Gelugpa Buddhist pantheon] individual scenes related to women’s lives in Mongolia. These scenes addressed childbirth, women working with their children, cleaning stomach, making tea, sex-with both the spouses and adulterous engagements, domestic violence, visits to shamans, mental sickness and health, and marriage … [The authors envisage their book] serving as a foundation for further studies integrating art and gender studies.

Gantsatstral has three children. Continuing to paint a growing number of artworks, Gantsatstral together with her eldest child (daughter Enerel) have held a number of exhibitions that continue to extend their respective artistic boundaries through the unfolding practice of curating collaborative and innovative installations. The Mongolian Gelugpa Buddhist Zava Damdin Bagsh (1975– ), as well as being Gantsatstral’s spiritual mentor,  is an artist too. My brother was a lam at Amarbayasgalant Monastery together with my Teacher. Between 1990 and 1996, my brother and Zava Bagsh studied together. At that time, I was an art student in Russia. My brother went to Amarbayasgalant just after he graduated from the 8th grade of secondary school. He was only 16 years old.

My sister’s son, who was then only 5 years old, went with him. Both my sister and I were very surprised when we heard this news from our parents. I dwelt on this news and asked my parents how they could be so brave as to send their own children so far away from home. It was only much later that I heard that my own Teacher’s father had also brought two of his own sons to the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, walking on foot all that incredibly long way from Ulanbaator to Amarbayasgalant in Selenge Aimag via the township of Darkhan.

I first met Zava Bagsh when, one day, he accompanied my lam-brother as a guest to our family home. Zava Bagsh, having just returned to Mongolia from a short trip to Switzerland, had come to our home especially to perform a special puja for our whole family. This was in 1995. Seeing my paintings, Bagsh praised my more recent works. Zava Bagsh also likes drawing. Mongolian traditional drawing was his primary interest at the time. In Mongolia, the descriptor ‘traditional’ now reflects many different forms.

Then, when I graduated and came back from Russia, we invited Zava Bagsh to again do a puja for us in our family home. He and I worked together to make a ‘balin’ the special dough, from which special ritual offerings such as tormas of various shapes and sizes are made. This made him very happy. He said that artistic people are somehow different from others. They are talented in making balin together with the lams, when most people prefer to just do nothing other than watch how the lamas work.

My brother was already working at Amarbayasgalant with my Teacher, and we were already close heart-friends. I officially entered into a student-spiritual Teacher relationship with Zava Bagsh in 2005. I offered him my very finest katag and incense, and our spiritual friendship has progressively unfolded from there.

Guru Deva Rinpoche (1910-2009), locally referred to as ‘Mongolian Rinpoche’ is the other important Mongolian lama in my life. The second time I met Guru Deva Rinpoche personally was in 1998 when I was introduced to him by one of his attendants who was Tibetan. I went to visit him at his home accompanied by my mother, my daughter as well as my sister. We all went together. Generally speaking, however, I was already familiar with Mongolian Buddhism before I met either Mongolian Guru Deva or Zava Bagsh.

During the socialist time, the practice of Buddhism was prohibited. Even the older generation people were afraid to go to Ganden Monastery to pray. For a while, it was even prohibited to celebrate Tsaagan Sar, or the first ‘white’ moon of the new year calendar. Yet, old people continued to secretly light their traditional butter lamps with their freshly hand-made cotton wicks and place them on their home altar whether they were disguised or not.

Life was like that for my maternal grandmother. She moved to Ikh Huree (present day  Ulanbaator) when she was 13 years old. My maternal grandmother, before her death in 1991 at the age of 73, spoke often of how she lived together with her brother. My great uncle was a very learned lama at Ganden Monastery during those times. My grandmother’s brother was a lam and therefore a victim of the political and cultural purge in 1937 when so many Mongolian lamas perished, were executed or imprisoned. She was 19 years old at the time.

They were living in their ger within the big boundary fence around Ganden Monastery, guarded by a huge ‘four-eyed’ dog. He also kept a small Tibetan dog that, most of the time, would sit on his shoulder, tiny little dog that it was. ‘Just a handful’ she would say. When he was taken away in 1937, his dog, a miniature kind of Tibetan dog, was the only thing left with my grandmother. Everything else, his ritual implements, all of his belongings, everything was taken away.

My grandmother, who was born in 1918, has told me many such detailed stories. She was a very detailed and meticulous person, in all that she taught and did for us. My constant companions, her instructions as to how to live one’s life, and such stories will stay forever with me in my heart. But in terms of deepening my understanding of our Mongolian Buddhist belief, it was actually my brother who has until now influenced me the most. He would often come from Amarbayasgalant Monastery where he was studying and speak of how he was learning Choira: Buddhist philosophy and then debating with lams from Ganden Monastery. He has such a sharp mind!

I think my true belief started around the time I myself first visited Amarbayasgalant in 1995. It was also the first time that I, along with my sister, first met Guru Deva Rinpoche who was also there. Guru Deva gave us both a ‘red ribbon’ [cf. a blessing string, a red chord with a hand-tied knot at its centre] and a photographic image of a Buddha. My lam-brother, at that time, was living in my grandmother’s ger right beside the monastic precinct. My Teacher was also there living in his small ger, and although he tells me that we first met there, I cannot remember. There were so many young boy-lams around the same age there in 1995, that I simply could not distinguish one from another.

I was so fascinated by the monastery built for Undur Gegeen Zanabaazar (cf. Amarbayasgalant). The energy at the monastery then was so very powerful. That first experience influenced me a lot. I was so inspired that I began drawing the monastery and its temples. I visited each temple which was then, although now dilapidated, still in its original structural form, somehow an original way of being. Whilst some would say, ‘in disrepair’ I did not see it that way. These structures had remained untouched and had yet to be tampered with, although the inevitable and seemingly necessary process of physical reconstruction and restoration would soon follow. Guru Deva Rinpoche himself, of course, would lead and finance this work. I think everything started for me from there. When I came home, I placed the Buddha given to me by ‘Mongolian Rinpoche’ and offered the Buddha and Bodhisattvas freshly-prepared butter lamp and tea.

When my brother came from Amarbayasgalant to visit us, he brought with him photos of different high and learned lamas. He told stories related to their lives that would make our jaws drop and our small minds wonder, both at the mysteries and such fascinating knowledge. My brother repeatedly explained to us that Buddhism is a philosophy to be studied. In terms of one’s heart and inner mind, to be Buddhist is not simply a matter of having blind faith. My conversations with my lam-brother, along with the stories he shared with us to open our eyes, influenced me to see Buddhism from a kind of scientific perspective, a science which helps us find ourselves and inner nature.

Yet I can see that for most Mongolian people, it is a kind of blind faith. Many Mongolian people run to see a lam, even when they have not thought through why they are going to see him, or what to ask when they meet. I myself have never approached a lam or lama in this way. My Teacher was the first lam to come into our home and do a puja for us. He kindly accepted me as a student of Buddhist philosophy when he was a monk (cf. Lobsang Dargey, 1976– ). Only later was he formally recognised as a reincarnate lama, a Rinpoche (cf. Zava Damdin Lama 1976– ).

The Mongolian artist S. Gantsatstral (right) with her daughter B. Enerel (left) who is also a trained artist in their studio at the Mongolian Union of Artists building in Ulanbaator in 2008

The Mongolian artist S. Gantsatstral (right) with her daughter B. Enerel (left) who is also a trained artist in their studio at the Mongolian Union of Artists building in Ulanbaator in 2008

My own mother was born in 1945, the only child to her own parents. I was born in 1963. But unlike my grandmother, of whom I spoke earlier and who was an only child, I am one of ten children born to my own mother and father. A professional artist who prefers to work in oils, I often muse on the topic of how art is connected to music. When I paint I like to listen to music. Classical music in particular brings things closer to my heart-mind. I did my work ‘Four Seasons’ whilst listening to classical music. Mongolia has four seasons, each of which is a stream of the same melody. Streams of music express changes in nature. ‘Melody’ reminds me of the perpetual movement and change in nature, of the wind and how rivers and rivulets flow.

I do not get my painting ideas from material things. Rather, I try to abstract the influences on me from other people, nature and ‘environment.’ Some artists do use the ‘realist’ way, but I am much more interested in representing visually the inner and secret nature of things, the inter-connectedness of being human with nature and space.

Although I do not think of ‘religion’ when I paint, Buddhist teachings are ever-present especially those associated with the protection of nature and natural environments, and in the broadest of terms, one’s compassion for all sentient beings. I would like to think this compassionate nature is reflected in my work, through my inner mind and its nature. I really try to show my love for the environment with my work, given that it is an extension of the way in which I live my life. 

When I look at the wonderful thangkas in the Zanabaazar Museum in Ulanbaator, for example, as an artist I feel a very interesting feelings. I look closely at each art object, and concentrate on its colors and style and then try to guess, even just feel the meaning and qualities that it particularly embodies. I am fascinated by how the colors in these very old traditional thangkas have retained their original intensity and condition, even after such a very long time. This is what I think of in each thangka when first we meet.

Such thangkas are painted by lams and so have the potential to retain the powerful energy of their maker, those that have brought them to life. Surely, such works of art are the result of not only technical ability but also the artist embodying deep faith and devotion whilst creating their work? For me, such thangkas retain a very powerful energy. After first admiring how they are painted, how neat, geometrically precise and meticulous the work is, and then reflecting on the incredible patience required, a different feeling arises—sometimes slowly and at other times very fast—in relation to each thankha—one that touches my inner being in some profound and meaningful way.

All enquiries to Mongolian artist-in-Mongolia S.Gantsatstral


Baldugiin Sharav (1869-1939) (Mong. Балдугийн Шарав) was a Mongolian painter who introduced (then) modern styles of painting to Mongolia and also painted in the traditional Mongolian zurag style (see: Tsoultem, N. (1986). The Development of the Mongolian National Style Painting Mongol Zurag (Ulaanbaator: State Publishing House). For an interesting exploration of B.Sharav’s art and that of others in relation to a Mongolian conception of ‘culture’ (soyol) and its transformation in the state socialist and post-socialist eras,  see: Tstsentsolmon, B. (2014). The ‘gong beat’ against the ‘uncultured’: contested notions of culture and civilization in MongoliaAsian Ethnicity 15 (Special Issue (4): Mongolia: Civilisation, Nationality and Ethnicity) pp422-438.

Author’s notes

This vignette is a revision of an earlier draft. This is one story from a larger collection of written narratives about contemporary Mongolian women and aspects of the cultural and social worlds within which they are individually situated. (Pleteshner, C. 2011. Nomadic Temple: Daughters of Tsongkhapa in Mongolia. Zava Damdin Sutra and Scripture Institute, Ulaanbaator. Unpublished manuscript). Each vignette is grounded in ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with the person about whom I write. All of the people in this assemblage are Khalkha Mongols, the largest group of ethnic Mongol peoples living in Mongolia today. I would like to thank D. Gerelbayasgalan for the considerable effort she put into formally transcribing recordings of some interviews conducted with Mongol women across the country in 2008. Vignettes in the series are grounded in these and other Mongolian women’s voices. Italicised text has been used to render their own words. S.Gantsatstral has expressed a preference for using her given name  (and patronymic) instead of a pseudonym.


In keeping with ethical scholarly research and publishing practices and the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, I anticipate that anyone replicating the photographs or translating into another language all or part of this article and submitting it for accreditation or other purpose under their own name, to acknowledge this URL and its author as the source. Not to do so, is contrary to the ethical principles of the Creative Commons license as it applies to the public domain.

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© 2013-2024. CP in Mongolia. This post is licensed under the  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions.  Posted: 2 October 2015. Last updated: 29 October 2017.