Mongolia has retained elements of ancient traditions long lost to the rest of the world. Folktales are one of the more tenacious of these traditions. This book includes twenty-five traditional Mongolian folktales. The oldest date back to at least the twelfth century an are concerned with relations between Man and Nature and the origins of natural phenomena. Others use the whimsicality of animals to describe man’s foibles. The stories are vividly illustrated by the papercuts of Mongolian artist Norovsambuugiin Baatartsog. Brilliant in conception, these cuts are minuets in black and white, dancing with energy and rhythm.
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Visually beautiful as well as highly engaging
Reviewed by Kachina Martin, Studio Art & Art History instructor at Muhlenberg High School; grades 10-12
Mongolian Folktales is a wonderful addition to any professional or classroom library. Folktales are universal, and these twenty-five stories illustrate that while Mongolia may be a region with which you – or your students – are not familiar, you can easily draw many commonalities between the ideas presented in these stories with other cultures. As a Studio Art teacher, I am always seeking works beyond the European tradition to use as visual examples for my students and will admit that what first caught my eye were the images accompanying the stories – they are stunning, and are actually the inspiration behind the text.
The images featured are the work of a single artist – Norovsambuugiin Baatartsog – a contemporary paper-cut artist. As the informative essay about the illustrator notes, while paper cut art or “silhouettes” dates only from the 1950’s, “the Mongolians have … a long tradition of cutting shapes out of a variety of other materials” such as felt, leather, and cloth. As such, these pieces can be seen as a continuation of this Mongol tradition. These works are tremendous, and seem even more so when you realize that these intricate designs are created free-handed, from a single piece of black paper! Sincerely, they have to be seen to be believed! In addition to the multiple illustrations for each story, there is a delightful self-portrait of the artist. In my unit on self-portraiture, this is almost always the favorite of the students; it provokes questions about what kind of art this artist creates, and students immediately note that he is left-handed and love his long, flowing hair. I allow students to try their hand at this form of art – it remains a true challenge. As a teacher in Pennsylvania, many of my students are already familiar with scherenschnitte, which translates to “scissor cuts” in German. Our area was settled by Germans in the 18th century and this form of art, which focuses on symmetry and detail, is still practiced by many local artists today. Baatartsog’s works are very different from the images that we associate with scherenschnitte, enabling students to appreciate how each culture establishes norms for what is considered beautiful.
I have also used the text in a course entitled Global Studies, an Honors level team-taught course addressing art, literature, history, and music for 11th grade students. The history teacher helps to situate the students both historically and geographically and the literature instructor reads the opening tale entitled, “How Storytelling Began among the Mongol People,” drawing comparisons to other cultures and the importance of storytelling. This opening tale is referred to again when we show the film Khadak* as part of our mini-unit on Magical Realism, which is situated within our larger unit on Asia. Khadak is set in the steppes of Mongolia and focuses on the life of Bagi, a nomadic herder, who, along with his family, is forcibly relocated to a town to work at coal mine. Bagi suffers from epilepsy, which cause visions and out-of-body experiences. Students accept these visions as they are already familiar with tale of Tarvaa and are aware of the Mongols’ understanding of life, death, and the role of the supernatural. Students also understand that for a nomadic culture like the Mongols, the ability to travel lightly is paramount. Thus, the ability to remember stories and share them is a highly valued and prized skill, giving importance to the oral tradition as well as the role of imagination. The stories in the text also echo the strong connection that the Mongol people feel to the land and its animals, further enriching student’s appreciation of the film, and ultimately, the Mongolian culture as a whole.
I highly recommend this text as a way to engage students both in and out of the studio to learn more about Mongolian culture in a way that is visually beautiful as well as highly engaging.
*For further information about Khadak, visit http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0475241/, which offer links to a series of critical reviews from a variety of perspectives.