Desert Sharing Exhibition – History Museum Ulaanbaatar

Desert Sharing: Two Women, Two Deserts, Two Cultures, One Friendship

In 2006 Mongolian artist Tugsoyun Sodnom travelled to Australia and met Melbourne artist Jenni Mitchell. They soon realized they shared a love of wild places; both previously spending much of their artistic pursuits and journeys into the deserts and countryside of their respective countries.

Excited to discover a kindred spirit in each other Jenni invited Tugsoyun along on a painting trip into the South Australian Flinders Rangers with partner artist Mervyn Hannan.

The three artists set off for a journey to Parachilna in the Northern Flinders Ranges. Togsuyon was surprised how many features of this rugged part of Australia reminded her of parts of countryside Mongolia. The wide expanse of horizon, the dry rugged cliffs and sandy soil had a familiarity; except for the fauna and vegetation which was fascinating in its difference and abundance for Togsuyon. Together as they journeyed the artists swapped the words for each feature of landscape and began learning and sharing customs. Even the use of soft dry pastel was a new experience for Tugsoyun who was more familiar with an oil pastel commonly used by Mongolian artists. The brilliant intensity of the хех тэнгэр; blue sky, was the same. As Tugsoyun shared stories of her beloved Mongolia Jenni and Mervyn vowed to visit and the project of Desert Sharing was born.

Days were spent painting together under the shade of ancient red river gum trees growing from the stony beds of the wide dry desert rivers. The gentle sound of the diamond dove call contrasted with the harsh screech of the many large flocks of white cockatoos along the river banks. And in the evening back at camp the artists marveled together at the spectacle of the wild sun fire as it set below the horizon backed by the beauty of a soft pink and mauve light.

On return from South Australia to Jenni’s Eltham studio Togsoyun and Jenni worked for several weeks side by side listening to the music of Mongolia, and sometimes that of Australia. The Mongolian traditional music seemed to fill the studio appropriately with a sound for the artists to paint the large canvases that followed. ‘I am usually more comfortable working alone, and yet with Tugsoyun sharing my space was easy, our work is quite different in appearance, but the essence derives from the same influence; that of the spirit of the landscape in its great expansiveness or the small fine detail as that of a small plant or composition of a stone.

The culmination of the three artists Flinders Ranges work came together in an exhibition held soon after at the Eltham Montsalvat Art Colony which was officially opened by the then Consulate for Mongolia, Peter Sloane who recognized the importance of the three artists embarking on an their cultural exchange in partnership, ideas and friendship.

Although Mitchell and Hannan were unable to join Sodnom until several years later; by invitation they were able to ship some paintings to Mongolia to be shown in two invitation exhibitions in Ulaanbaatar.

It was not until 2010 that Jenni and Mervyn embarked on their first visit to Mongolia; and their artist friends home city Ulaanbaatar.

Again the three artists were able to travel and work together. The first trip from Ulaanbaatar was made to Kharhorin; old capital city of Mongolia where once more they set up their paints and made sketches and small paintings of the Mongolian countryside.
‘The Mongolian Steppe appeared endless. In comparison to the breadth of an Australian desert landscape Mongolia’s countryside seemed even larger. The great Steppe plains interspersed by outcrops of green hills behind which lay further vast plains of countryside seemed to have no end’.

The fenceless countryside of Mongolia; a ger camp with family, herdsmen and satellite dish contrasts against an Australian with collections of tin sheds and outback humpies. Thousands of kilometers of fence posts and wire divide Australia into parcels of ownership. Nowadays the Australian outback station is more likely to be owned by an international syndicate and use light aircraft and bikes to muster stock that was once tendered by stockmen on horses.
The presence of the eagle is important in both landscapes: a symbol of the power and fragility of life.

You do not need to travel far across the Mongolian Steppe to find evidence of human life. From seemingly nowhere will appear a herdsman on a horse, or a small settlement of gers, a relic of a past Buddhist temple, an earlier carved stone or a fresh blue silk offering laid upon an Ovoo. In both our countryside’s bleached animal bones abound. These are among our countries differences and similarities and the subject of our paintings and photography.

The artists travelled together a second trip into the North Eastern Khentii Amig region to experience a different kind of landscape. This time, in Chinggis Khan birth country the landscape was more hilly with great open plains and rivers. The further north the more vegetation and birch forest appeared as a contrasting subject matter. Timber building constructions instead of Gers and a lot of water and swamp land to traverse. The abundance of wildflowers was fascinating to the Australians who were familiar with many of them at home as cultivated garden varieties.

The three artists have been preparing work over the past years from these journeys to present as the continuing story of Desert Sharing. Works from these share journeys will be on exhibition at two venue. The first exhibition opens at the History Museum May 28 Desert sharing ii and continues for one week, the second show in Ulaanbaatar, desert Sharing iii at the Union of Mongolian Artists gallery commencing June 35 for one week.

Selected Australian and Mongolian paintings, drawings, photographs and silk textiles will be presented across the two venues.

Each of the artists have travelled far in their pursuit of wild landscape including the Antarctic, The Arctic, Norway Africa, Europe as well as Australia and Mongolia.

The project will return to Australia In 2013 when Tugsoyun plans to return to Australia and continue the exchange of culture, landscape and exhibitions.

Ulanbaataar May 24

Well, we just turned down a trip with a tour company to first fly out west to the Alti mountains, horse and camel riding and camps by beautiful lakes before driving south to the three parts of the Gobi desert. The price tag was more than a month is Paris, with air fare. And we have exhibitions to organize and a short trip with Togsoo to the Gobi. We would have been the only people on the tour. We would be met at the airport by a driver, cook and English guide. Guess the Alti mountains and the Gobi will still be there is we decide to return.

Toogsoo invited us to a presentation with the Korean and Japanese university today out of town a bit past the Russian region of Ullaabaatar. There is a lot of ceremony in honor of artists and people who do here. We met a few more of Togsoo’s artist friends today, some of who were in the celebration of international artists.


We also spent some time looking at picture framers who may be able to cut some mounts for the works on paper that we did not bring mounts for. Unfortunately framers here do not seem to have mount cutters. Instead the Korean framers in Togsoo’s studios only make mounts by slicing each side with a mitre shape… A painting could then have four different color around the frame. The second framer nearby appeared to be a dealer too for there were hundreds of well framed paintings on the walls and no, he would only makes frames if you bought the whole garish frame. And then he would only make very fancy mounts, not the simple mount we need. The solution will be to pin the works directly to the walls in a more contemporary manner.

I bought one of Togsoo’s beautiful etchings today. Her studio is full of many large oil paintings, some we have seen previously and many new works. Her Lino cuts and few etchings available are very fine.

We have also spent some time in one of the Ulaanbaatar fine art museums where we saw many fine artists in the making. I was surprised to find most students here in the art school male. We seem to have a ghee percentage of females in fine art at home.

Impressive was the quality of the work being produced and how much still life and traditional work was set. I met some students mastering traditional Mongolian painting using pencil sketch and gouache paint. It was exquisite work.

Also interesting was how small a space each student had to work, and on entering the room the ‘quiet of concentration’ and work was happening; with maybe six to eight students easels on top of each other.


Below is a photograph of the ‘Childrens Art School’ where Togsoo says she learnt to paint when she was young. What a great thing and how good would this be back in Australia. children here are introduced to art at the earliest age and some of the young children musicians are just wonderful. The sculpture is that of a young Lenin.



Ulaanbaatar May 22


Photo of paper mâché artist and some work.

Snow from last night could be seen on the hill surrounding Ulaanbaatar though very little had settled on the ground in the city. It felt very cold, reminded me of the arctic, temperature about 0 in the morning with a chill factor of -7. Exhilarating is one for it. The novelty wore off quickly and after a walk to some studios to meet some artist friends of Togsoo’s we returned to our apartment to spend the day organizing the show and writing. Mervyn finished stretching the canvases for the show. The state let the hot water run through the city pipes again today. The notice was that we would be another week without hot water. I wonder if the cold snap and the elections coming up soon inspired the hot taps to be turned on.




Ulaanbaatar May 20


We are back here at the Amsterdam cafe at 8.00pm. We have been walking aimlessly all day through the city visiting various locations such as the Natural History Museum. We saw this museum last visit two years ago and it was good to see the amazing dinasoeur bones again. The museum appears to be struggling with its upkeep and all of the exhibits seem as if they need attention. It is a pity as they hold such an amazing collection of animals. Excepting the fossils I thought it would be more helpful to have a zoo to see the animals live. Then again I would wonder what state the animals could be kept in when they’d re wild steppe creatures. It all seems unfair; the thought of creatures being shot for our viewing in the name or science or keeping wild animals in confines.

There is a exhibit of Mongolian man in space, complete with the suit he wore. Also a fine collection of minerals found in the Gobi and throughout Mongolia. Tourist shops can be found everywhere selling antiques, imitation antiques and beautiful traditional hats. Prices vary enormously for the same items across town.

Ulaanbaatar Monday 21 May

It is snowing outside. Yesterday the temperature was 30c. I am resting in my bed in the apartment because it the warmest place. Looking through the pink curtains, muddy glass and iron grill (our cage) I am watching snow fall. it is not heavy and every now and then the wind gusts and blows it sideways so it appears to be driven sideways. The forecast tomorrow is for more snow. Pity, as we were going to go to the country to meet a sharman tomorrow.

This morning Togsoo’s Mervyn and I went to meet Tugi at is office at Dragon Printing to organize the printing of my photographs for exhibition. The price is good in comparison to Australia, and the work will be completed tomorrow. I am impressed at the speed in which printing is done in Ulaanbaatar. Maybe not so impressed with other areas; traffiic especially.

After the printing we walked into the street where the fabric shops are. Several shops in a row selling silk and Chinese Mongolian fabrics and it is so beautiful I hardly know which way to look or where to begin. Totally seduced!! I had wanted Togsoo to take us to the black market for fabric stalls but she decided I should buy from city stores as the market is too grubby and dangerous for pick pockets and bag slashers. We did go two years ago and it was rather exciting; stall after stall of cloth and antiques as well as day to day needs. At the back of the market I remember set out upon the ground rows of Mongolian saddles – Made from wood and brightly coloured mostly in traditional orange and blue patterns.




Ghingiss Hotel


This is a photo of our new office, the foyer of the Ghingiss hotel in Ulaanbaatar. It is our closest Wifi connection. Buying data daily for iPad and iPhone has become too expensive!

It is Saturday and we are wandering around familiarizing ourselves a little more with UB.

Ulaanbaatar Sunday May 20

Walked from our apartment block to the Ghingis Hotel to use Wifi and look around. Australia should never complain about about our streets or infrastructure. The sharp contrast between our cities is apparent when walking the streets. The pavement is generally broken due as much as anything by the extreme weather conditions the country suffers. Great lumps of concrete or blocks are raised, holes and pieces of steel rio jut from buildings and paths. Edges of buildings often are sharp and it is up to the individual to be careful when going about. Man holes are often without covers and may or may not have lumps of concrete lossless covering them. This is not a wheelchair friendly city. The paths are often broken by a concrete curbing you need to step over. And yet these streets are walked by elegantly dressed women wearing the highest fashion heels. For me, flat shoes are still awkward.

Walking along the river path this morning we notices great shells of ice formed on the cool underside of the bridges. these must have been at leat one and a half meters thick, left over from the frozen winter river freeze. A homeless persons camp was made beside the ice under the bridge.

The city is in an obvious state of change as new apartment blocks rise all around the city. The old soviet apartment blocks are tired and looking shabby as the paint work and iron grills covering the windows stress from the harsh climate. Cracks and lumps of concrete loosen and fall with age.
New apartment walled enclaves are developed with grand gates and gleam with fresh paint; in waiting of the new Ulaanbaatar that is sure to come.

We are living in an older part of town where the Soviet style apartment blocks are built on a regular grid with a park of shorts in the centre of each apartment tower. A children’s playground with painted steel equipment for residents is provided. This equipment would have been removed years ago from our parks; deemed unsafe. Here they are used constantly by happy laughing children. On bench seats outside the apartment blocks sit older residents in an array of traditional dell and western clothing.

Some happy children are riding bikes clearly delighted with the new road surface that was laid yesterday. The black tar is a bright addition to the dusty block.

We met up with Lkhamma and her husband in the evening. Lkhamma stayed with us in Melbourne on her vist last year. Lkhamma is the Foreign Arts contact for the Union of Mongolian Artists where our second exhibition will be displayed in there beautiful gallery in the centre of town.

We were taken to dinner at a fine Indian Restraunt in a fine hotel. Her husband, Tugi owns a printing business and will be able to print my photography for the exhibition. He explained he has a very good Japanese printing machine exported recently. He also has a Chinese machine. If the Chinese machine breaks down they need to bring in a Chinese technician. This requires first contacting the makers, organizing a visa for the Chinese to enter Mongolia, organizing accommodation and a process and down time of at least two weeks for the business. It makes it very difficult to compete in business as there are many printing shops in UB.

We were woken in the evening by the sound of shouting emanating from the apartment next door. Alcohol is a problem here, as anywhere. Tugi explained vodka was the problem here and not so much with illicit drugs as in other places. Vodka is cheap, as little as four dollars a bottle, up to maybe $20. I asked if there was any difference in the quality of the taste between the cheap and the more expensive. Tugi says no, only in the quality of the glass and the labels. In the countryside where vodka is fermented by the country people is there a marked difference. The country vodka is much softer. Togi owns a ger camp and has promised to take us out to his camp for a weekend.

Ulaanbaatar Friday 18 may

Ulaanbaatar Friday 18 May 2012

We met the Director of the history museum this morning to discuss preparations for our exhibition at the end of the month. The museum has frames we can use and glass showcases for the silk works I am exhibiting. We watched a small political protest outside his window at the gates of parliament house; parliamentary elections will be held soon.The newspapers tell of a recent president being arrested for corruption.

There is a lot of movement in Ulaanbaatar, some districts are showing marked improvements with roads and infrastructure. Indeed as I write one of the roads and car parks besides Togsoo’s apartment block that we are renting has new tarmac is being laid by brand new looking machinery. I hope they make it around the corner to the side we enter from each day and where Unech’s car Is garaged.

Crossing roads is still dangerous but this time it is not so frightening as I become familiar with the process and of direction the traffics hails from. The traffic still comes from all directions and road rules are maintained as little as possible. Many streets have police to direct traffic but they seem to be decoration as much as anything as they don’t notice cars proceeding through the red lights or if traffic is entering the wrong way into streets. Sometimes it is totally chaotic and mini grid locks occur frequently. No one seems overly troubled, it is just the way traffic moves. This city was not planned for the extreme traffic that is entering at 1,400 cars per week.

The English papers also say that in ten years the energy demands will double as the country begins to embark on more manufacturing. I read yesterday the country supplies 100% meat, wool, wheat and over half the vegetables needed are grown in Mongolian soils. The paper went on to say how much better the country will do by providing more manufacturing of their own raw
materials and it seems they are set to become another China in the next few years as they begin to use their raw materials with cheap labour into goods to export to the west.

The mining companies are digging up the raw material; coal, gold, silver and whatever else can be found. Some of the wealth is being distributed at a cost of the old nomadic peoples way of life. Land is soon to become free for nationals to purchase. Each Mongolian national has had the option to take shares in the country’s mining fees or take 21’000 tg per month. More than half the people take the money over shares because it is immediate. Poverty is still in the streets, people are not so much begging as offering services such as the old lady squatting I saw with an old set of scales who would allow passers bye to weigh themselves for 100 tg. At the other extreme are the many new department stores offering most products for sale as can be found in any large global department store.

Shelves of local supermarkets are stocked with rows of Russian goods and two full isles of local vodka which can be purchased for as little as $4 Australian dollars per bottle. Sweets also occupy much shelf space similar to our rows of soft drinks in the supermarket. Alcohol is a problem and no wonder as it is so accessible and cheap. I have not seen any sign I can understand to limit sales to an age group.

Today after the museum Togsoo took us schooling along the streets and we ended up at the famous Amsterdam restaurant which has good Dutch food as well as free Wifi which is going to be useful for us. It seems the data I have been buying for the iPad and the phone has been leaking like a flooded river. Each day I have bought data and each morning it is gone.

Below the Amsterdam cafe is a shop that sells fair trade Kazak people embroideries and artworks. They make stunning wall hangings that are traditionally used to line ger walls. Sadly the people are selling off their old hangings and exchanging them for money and polyester clothes. The people are wanting to swop tradition for modern fabrics. The hangings are becoming more rare now as they are sold intact or cut into pieces to make handbags, purses, mobile phone pockets and even passport bags. We purchased a very old hanging completely embroidered and for the price of the time put into the work it seems so unfair in many respects. The price has risen since we we here two years ago and I hope the extra money is going back to the people who have given up the beautiful work. There are many modern copies on offer to tourists now made from polyester thread. The one we bought was old and made from cotton.



Ulanbaatar Day Three

This morning we spend some time on domestic chores; washing clothes in the bathroom basin and boiling water in the kettle as there is still no hot water. Two weeks until the city hot water is turned back on. This will be interesting as our exhibition is opening on the 28th of May and the city water will be back on 1 June. We may need to book a hotel in another city to have a proper shower before the show. It is interesting how everyone takes this in their stride whereas if this were to happen in Melbourne, no hot water for two weeks there would be strikes and screaming in the streets… Almost.

Togsoo’s picture framer came and measured up my canvases this morning. He will make up stretchers for the exhibition and we can re-stretch the paintings in a day or two when he makes the returns with the stretchers. There is a large difference in cost of stretchers in Mongolia compared to Australia. There is an enormous difference with most things and surprising to find what is more on parity. We have bought ourselves new pillows, pure cashmere wool pillows too good to leave behind costs very little in comparison to what we would expect to pay at home. When we visited the art supply shop I was also able to buy beautiful brushes at low cost.

The Internet has been a disappointment as the data I bought recently was used up almost immediately and now it seems I will need to try to work out of free Wifi locations over a coffee.

Our invitations and brochures arrived today from the printer. That is a fine service for Togsoo only ordered them less than 24 hours ago. The printer has made a good job of the brochures which strong colour and crisp print. We have Mongolian writing on one side and English the other. We have advertised Both exhibitions on the one card following the Desert Sharing theme from our first exhibition. If we do a show in Melbourne it will become Desert Sharing Four.

Ulaanbaatar is more familiar second time around. I am already used to the broken footpaths and needing to care for my life when crossing roads. There are visible changes around the town, but not so much in our district.

Togsoo had visitors to her studio today from Australian Soroptomist group. Togsoo is now the president of the local group and welcomes visitors when they arrive. As if to prove this is a small world the visiting women came from Melbourne and one of them Janette told me she had come to my exhibition of and Mongolian Paintings ‘From The Edge’ at Montsalvat in 2010; and that Kevin Brophy who opened the show is her brother.

In style Togsoo had tickets to the Theatre tonight to see a Mongolian production of Cats. It was again an extraordinary show with fine acting as it seems the Mongolians are only capable of producing. The voices had a Mongolian strength that gave them away from other western voices. The costumes were striking and the performance tight. At the end of the show there was nearly as much time with the ceremony and the mayoress of the city came on stage to announce the new theatre that would be built in the city.



Ulaanbaatar, Day Two

Last night, our second sleep was a little more difficult as we are getting used to our space and the first exhaustion was wearing out. Have I mention the towns water supply heating has been turned off? In Ulaanbaatar the apartments and housing heating is controlled by the state; a left over from the socialist days. It is a good system in many ways, except when it is still cold and the state has decided to switch off the heating for everyone on a set day: May 15! That was yesterday. And sometimes, when the housing to the people is turned off, so is the hot water. This is the case for us. I had only been enjoying the exceptional hot water and my bath the day before. ‘surely, I thought the water would be back on in a day or two or three… There is a notice saying the hot water in this district 11 will not be turned on again until June 1. Hmm. No hot water for shower. And then the power went out. Togsoo has told us that the power goes out regularly. Fortunately that has come back on. And did I mention the toilet has been leaking, but that too has been fixed. A man was called and he rocked up about 11pm and took no more than three minutes to ‘fix’ the leaking tap. The tap is not leaking now, but the water still keeps on running into the toilet. This, for drought stricken Australians is a little distressing… To see all that water lost.

Last evening we met our landlord and paid our first months’s rent. This is a pretty good apartment and we think we are fortunate to be here; and on the ground floor. Two years ago we had an apartment on the 5th floor, no lift, no lights.

First trip this morning was to the Canon shop. Yesterday had no success in finding spare battery for my canon camera or extra memory cards. Found address for canon shop and left very happy with my extra cards and batteries. Last trip here I had my lap top with me and spent hours each evening downloading photographs to computer and then saving to disk and portable storage device. This time I wanted to take less technology and save time in the evenings for other things. More memory cards seem to be the simple solution, though not the cheapest perhaps.

Most importantly today we had our visas renewed for another 30 days, until July 15. This will cover our two exhibitions and trip to the Gobi.

There is some sorting out to renew visas. We knew we had to go to immigration to renew. We had picked up a leaflet at the airport also explaining where to go. There was a phone number but no address. The office used to be in town. Now the immigration office has moved out of town near the airport. Without a car this is not easy to get to. Unench drove us out in the morning. Without our Mongolian friends to speak for us I would hate to think how we could manage the communications needed to explain what and how long we needed an extension. From Australia it os only possible to have a 30 day visa which can be extended once only another 30 days.

There were many people seeking extensions and other needs. Many Chinese come to Mongolia on tourist visas; like us and then work and try to have a better life here. One can only imagine how it must be in china. We saw many small buses with Chinese men. There were many men lined up outside the gate; security guards watching over them. Chinese labour is cheaper here than Mongolian.

An Australian with dreadlocks heard our voices and wanted to speak to a fellow country person. He was off to the steppe to ‘ride a horse on a crusade and conquer the lands’ he went on to run down our governments and the multi nationals and say how frightened he was of what everyone was doing… Now what is the difference of his attitude to say he wants to crusade and conquer . I thought this land was already ‘owned and populated’… By Mongolians. I think there is no place on earth anymore that is not already claimed as home by man or beast. The concept of claiming land has to represent pushing something or person from it. Even the Antarctic and the oceans are home to a living entity.

… After some time of queue hopping, form filling and signing, money exchanged and papers stopped we finally had new stamps issued in our passports and were free to leave with another 30 days.

Togsoo and Unech next took us to the National Gallery to meet her artist friends and view a group exhibition of their work. We met about six of her friends. One of her friends was also a poet with several books.

It was lovely to meet the group; though none of us could really speak to each other but seemed to get our thoughts to each other with Togsoo and Unech translating. One of the men painted I thought in a similar style of landscape as I do. The subject matter too is similar when we looked at the desert works. There are truly parallels with Australia and Mongolia and I felt quite excited to see their work and show Mervyn and my works on the iPad. Togsoo said one of the men lived in the Gobi and another is the central parts of Mongolia. Very interesting. We then went to view an extraordinary exhibition of photographic work from 1913; early Mongolia with many traditional gets and people. Early movies were also shown of the journeys the photographer took over several years. The catalogue is all written in Mongolian and it was a father and daugher team. Нэгэн ЗууньI Тэртээх- Монгол Улс, франц ГОЭЛРО зурагчньI Дуранд.

Mervyn has just read officially now there are thirteen horses to one person in Mongolia.

And the day was not over. We came home afterward for a rest before heading out to the Opera in the evening with the Togsoo’s family. We were the only apparent foreigners. It was a stunning dance performance by the several groups which included a sort of military history. Superb choreography with stunning costumes and wild music. The dances were traditional and contemporary with a large quote of military marches and story telling. I was intrigued by the sensitive emotion portrayed by the women and the uniforms of the soldiers. Later we discovered many of the dancers are from the police and the military and from now I will think of the energetic and frenetic movements, wild back flips and rollovers, elegance and grace when I next see a man in uniform.

These dancers with such precision, passion, and earnestness play for only one day! This is staggering! I cannot believe with the intensity and dedication of training needed to put on such a performance that there is not at least a ‘season’. If this performance were to be at the opera house or in a Melbourne theatre it would command large money and a long play and rave reviews. I had the same thoughts two years ago when we were taken to the theatre to watch traditional dancers and musicians. These are more than world class performers.

Tomorrow we will be seeing another show, a Mongolian rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webers Cats. Again, I understand it will be only playing for one night! THis is not yet the tourist season and I guess the population of Ulaanbaatar does not support more performances. I will try to get around to posting a photograph of the beautiful pink ballet theatre where we were tonight. Reminiscent of the Moscow ballet building I remember from my visit back in 1979!

Now to bed with a note to say my apologies for long posts… This has now become my journal for now. It seems again I have run out of data for my iPad and the phone, well that’s a non event here this time.