Ever since David and I traveled to China and Mongolia in 2008 as guests of the American embassy, I’ve paid particular attention to all things Mongolian-related that might happen in New York City. When an item about Hamid Sardar’s photography exhibit at the Tibet House appeared on Manhattan Users Guide (scroll down), I invited my friend Leigh Wells to see it with me. Leigh lived in Mongolia for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer and is herself a talented photographer. She’s just back from a month-long visit to her old stomping grounds.
As so often happens in New York, our signals got crossed and I ended up going solo but I’m hoping to return with Leigh to get an insider’s take on the photographs from both a cultural and artistic perspective.
Sardar’s images are breathtaking. If you live in New York City or are planning a visit, put this show on your agenda. It’s on view through August 20.
Beginning in 2000, Sardar traveled to Outer Mongolia to make a record of the country’s remaining nomad tribes. He followed horse-breeders, bear-hunters, wolf-tamers, eagle-masters, and reindeer riders on their seasonal migrations. His intention was to capture a nomadic culture on the brink of the great and irreversible change brought on by a fledgling democracy and encroaching technology.
The 25 pictures on display are large – 18 ½" x 27 ½" -- and in addition to depicting the brutal conditions facing nomads traversing the mountains during the harshest weather imaginable (to this city dweller), they include intimate portraits of family life: a young girl performs the morning milk dance, a grandmother pacifies her grandchildren on a wolf pelt (above). “Kazak Mother Wolf”, is particularly memorable for both its subject matter and its composition. A Rembrandt portrait comes to mind, where the central figure appears to glow from an interior light.
Each photograph is accompanied by Sardar’s helpful description. Some explain the lore behind a particular ritual captured by the image; others are suspense-filled tales of man facing the elements. A series taken over a period of days in 2006 shows hunters struggling over a mountain during an especially brutal snow storm. Sardar can hear avalanches “crashing down the mountain slopes.” The visibility is so poor that he can “barely see ten feet ahead.” At one point the fresh snow gives way under his feet and he plummets down a twenty-foot funnel. From behind, he hears the voice of a hunter: “Isn’t this wonderful,” the hunter says, urging Sardar to “push ahead until we reach the bottom of the bowl.”
Leigh and I did manage to catch up this afternoon over ice-tea and coffee at City Bakery on 18th Street. Leigh handed over a gift bag of aaruul (right), the popular Mongolian snack made of dried milk curd. I had sampled it during our 2008 stay and have been haunted by its flavor ever since. It looks like nuggets of dried toothpaste and starts with the funky flavor of a strong cheese but has a sweet finish. (Some varieties are not sweet.) After chewing a few pieces Leigh and I agreed that it would enliven a salad of bitter greens and dried cherries tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette. You heard it here first! Mongolian aaruul, the next big thing!