Dashi Namdakov is a highly successful artist whose work has been exhibited in major galleries in Russia, China and Kazakhstan. He hails from Buryatia, a republic of Russia that lies in South Eastern Siberia on the Mongolian border. It is the centre of Buddhism in Russia and its history of Shamanism co-exists peacefully with a host of other religions across the country. Namdakov's approach is inspired by East Asian cultures, especially those of his native Buryatia and Mongolia.
His work has no doubt achieved its phenomenal level of success and popularity due to his incredible ability to recall statuary of archaic, bygone splendour and magnificence, whilst reflecting a contemporary edge. His work draws on Buddhist-Lamaist mythology, which he then translates through his knowledge of Western sculptural aesthetics.
So, how exactly does he do this?
Dashi takes inspiration from the extensive archives of nomadic folk craftsmen with their shamanic arts. He recalls the traditions of the Turkic tribes of Siberia together with ancient Chinese and Japanese art. Despite the reworking of these ancient visual traditions, his renditions may appear 'fresh' and different to a Western viewer, unused to such iconography, especially given his use of jewel -like, semi-precious materials such as onyx, marble, lapis lazuli and gold leaf.
The personal meanings with which Dashi invests his sculpture, endow the work with an exciting, deeply authentic appeal. In their presence, there is a sense that the sculptures have been created for a meditative, spiritual purpose, which is something still possibly 'outside' a mainstream western art world’s agenda, despite its transcultural turn.
Dashi recreates animal characters based on the Eastern Zodiac, which closely resembles the Western astrological calendar. Zodiac means 'circle of animals' and is based on the lunar calendar, split into twelve parts, each represented by an animal. Ancient nomadic tribes saw these cycles as affecting the seasons, agriculture and the lives of humans and animals. Dashi's Zodiac sculptures represent the following animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar. Additionally, he pictures fantastic human and animal figures such as the Shaman, the winged horse and the nomadic Bride, on horseback with her dowry.
Themes in Dashi's work
Perhaps Dashi sees himself in a role akin to the Shaman of old; carrying out his own form of artistic homage to the divine ancestors. Some of his pieces seem menacing and wrathful, which might give off a message of aggression. However in Buddhist/Shamanist iconography, such imagery was used for deterrence only. In Dashi's case, his work bestrides different cultural worlds and geographies and his creatures sit poised on the boundaries of essentialism. The main question we should ponder is this – are they ‘authentic’ or 'current'? In this sense, the pieces defend their own relevance, as critics might threaten to label them as weighty, decorative, public art / museum pieces;mere historical, oversized paperweights in a fast – paced universe of the virtual and the ephemeral.
The "currency" of Dashi Namdakov
My own perspective on the site of meaning for Dashi Namdakov's sculpture in the setting of the Halcyon Gallery, Bond Street, is
- Firstly that his work is largely represented in an essentialising manner. This is due to the fact that his geographical positioning is emphasised as uppermost and the gallery notes echo with a sense of wonder at his mythical roots: his cultural 'otherness'. Or in other words, the way the words dwell on his "difference" for an audience unfamiliar with the iconography of Siberian traditions, (which, truth be told is probably most of the exhibition's western audience…?) In this sense, this framing was perhaps unavoidable, as there was a need for an introduction, an appreciation of context for his work to be perceived as 'authentic' and not appropriated.
- Secondly; space was granted in the curator's notes to Dashi's possession of his own personal vision and interpretation of ancient art. This allows a viewer to see him as a powerful mediating subject not an object of Orientalising projections. He is even canonised as a modern day master (or art shaman) and endowed therefore with an additional authenticity, one which is more contemporary.
Pondering on the notion of what makes an artist "current", apart from the reality of existing NOW, I sought to discover what Dashi's sculptures might mean for our world today. Why are they being produced and valued? What benefits do they provide for the world, as they may be seen as drawn from an 'outsider' position, as opposed to an art practice that aligns itself with contemporary philosophies and art theory.
My belief is that the meaning of his work lies in his emphasis on the sensitive portrayal of shamanic rituals of healing, meditation and sacrifice. Qualities that have long since been associated in the Western world with the contemplative practices imported from 'The East'.The curator mentions how on seeing the amazing striations of onyx he used when creating his 'Lion' sculpture, Dashi was put in mind of the art of the ruined city of Persepolis, capital of Persia, whose remnants are now housed in the British Museum.
In our world today, where governmental power relies on the promises of materialistic desires assuaged, Dashi's work persists in the imagination as a site of escape…a gentle hope that spiritual values still might be found. In a world that watches the systematic military destruction of ancient Middle Eastern sites of great artistic and architectural magnificence; invoking the inevitable recollection of how past civilisations and cultures fell to our own British Empire, Dashi's work can be seen as a much – needed reminder that spiritual wealth is something the people of our Earth need to regain in order to survive. In this sense, his "currency" is more cutting – edge than a "contemporary" navel-gazing art based on negation
Guest Contributor Jenny Jones – Artist & Writer