Samandar Tsogtbayar, Merited Art Personality of Mongolia, is a prominent public figure and well known for his varied social activities. He is also well-known for his timely cartoons.
Tsogtbayar, please first tell us about your cartoons, their genre?
My cartoons are primarily political and editorial cartoons. Editorial cartoon similarly like a political commentary represents political and social events through drawing. It is a major journalistic category and there are even Pulitzer Prize winner cartoonists. I have been working as a cartoonist since 1982 and since the society has changed, and so has this genre of journalism.
As you know, socialism was a society of ideology and so like all other creative works, cartoons were also tools for propagating socialist ideology. In 1990 the country transitioned to market-based free society and everything became free and independent. I can draw and paint anything that I wish, and not what the party or someone else wants, and print them too as I want. I feel proud enjoying freedom to print, a freedom which perhaps many artists are unable to enjoy even today in some other countries.
For a creative person, what’s most important is the freedom of thought, and this freedom I began to enjoy only after 1990. This was a very big gain, not only for me, but also for all other Mongolians, the freedom of mind and expression. This has been a dream and aspiration over centuries of many generations of people and today I can proudly say that Mongolians are enjoying this freedom in the real meaning of the word.
Today the society, which is open and free, has changed and is changing, but the challenges are galore. How would you explain this state of affairs?
Issues and problems, which we used to criticize 30 years ago, are to be found even today and this is perhaps a common thing among humanity. Perhaps they are the expression of the flip sides of the mentality and nature of humans, and most likely many of these problems that existed in the past, would still be there in the future, as they are here today.
Artists and creative people have always dreamt and have waged struggle to put aright shortcomings and find solutions to problems.
In my case, my cartoons are a form of political struggle, a protest against all that’s wrong in the society. Mongolians are not different from other peoples and nations, because we too have similar problems and challenges that other peoples and nations are going through. These problems and challenges vary because of the different development levels, financial and economic capacities, our failure to fully adapt to a new society and because we have not been able to adopt new habits and practices. However, compared to other peoples and nations, I feel that we Mongolians have a greater flexibility for adaptation, and so we will be able to overcome the challenges and problems much faster. This is, most likely, linked to our nomadic nature of life and this gives us the strength to overcome challenges and problems in say 20-30 years which some other nations would take 200 years to do so. Because of this I am proud of being a Mongolian. Therefore, in order to bring closer the time to overcome our problems, all of us, without exception, must work much harder, and we artists, also being a fiber of the society, we must make contribution our own way.
This decline may be temporary. Not long ago I met a lama philosopher, with whom I agree that the challenges and crisis we are going through are rooted in the deterioration of our ethics and morals. Your drawings also deal with this matter?
The crisis we are going through is our karma. Now that we are reviving our traditions, reinstating our history, religion, education and culture, and it will bring about good karma and I am confident that tomorrow will be much better than today. What I believe is that looking at the brighter side of the life, rather than its darker side, gives greater confidence in addressing challenges, in other words, optimism and confidence in the future are what we must nurture and develop. I am, therefore, trying my best to recover and collect historical and cultural relics, and share information about them with others. I am doing this purely voluntarily, no one has asked me to do so just because I love my country. (Top images are covers of the Matar – Crocodile satirical journal of Mongolia, issued in the 1940′-1950s)
You are one of the most active users of social media – Facebook and Twitter, where you always react to happenings in the society, good or bad, immediately you’re your cartoons. For example, you have shared new drawings on air pollution, alcoholism, bribery, corruption etc.
Modern technological advances are also impacting on fine arts and journalism. Art professionals, through social media, we are now able to reach others very fast with our works and thoughts. I have 40 thousand friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, which means I can bring my works to 40 thousand people, who would retweet them and I guess I can reach 100 thousand people in an instant. Isn’t this such a great opportunity?
Social media is also helping feel and understand the different trends in the society instantly. Before 1990 I used to work for the country’s only satirical journal called Tonshuul (Woodpecker) and we had to wait one month to bring to our readers our drawings and cartoons. So, if we can better use modern communication and media means, we can reach many more people and that too in a fraction of a second.
You briefly mentioned about the satirical journal Tonshuul. Can you please tell us a little about this journal?
Tonshuul (Woodpecker, images left), Mongolia’s first professional satirical journal, was launched in 1935 by a career diplomat Jargalsaikhan, who is the father of a well-known diplomat Enkhsaikhan, who is also a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of The Mongolian Observer. Afterwards Tonshuul was put under the newspaper Unen (Truth) of the Party Central Committee as a propaganda tool of the party. I began my professional career with Tonshuul which I joined in 1985 and I love Tonshuul. In 1990 it was shut down and a decade later in 2002 it was revived and I spent 6 years working on my own. It was not easy financially for one person to manage and run such a big journal and it’s been stopped temporarily with the last issue carrying the words to be continued… I am working to restart the journal and I realize since the society has changed a lot and given the fact that these days people don’t read much, as in the case worldwide, I have to think best how to re-present the journal to the readers. A similar journal called Krokodil (Crocodile) existed in the former Soviet Union and there were satirical journals also in other former socialist countries, they have all disappeared with the previous society.
On the other hand, with the onset of social media, the need of the people to read has shrunk and so I have think hard about the genre the journal should pursue before re-launching it again.
You know that the Charlie Hebdo title is in great demand?
If I talk about Charlie Hebdo from a professional point of view, it goes after sensation, more than doing serious satirical cartoons, it is like a tabloid, grossly hurting other’s beliefs, convictions and values and so I don’t like Charlie Hebdo.
Under the banner of freedom of press and speech, you cannot hurt others’ conviction, religious beliefs and values. Professionals must have the highest level of ethics and morals, and follow them strictly.
I for one strictly follow professional ethics and morals. You can tease and criticize others but you cannot insult them. There’s nothing wrong in criticizing the folly, vice of a Member of Parliament, but definitely no one has the right to insult that politician.
Take for example caricature, which is a rendered image showing the features of its subject in a simplified or exaggerated way through artistic drawing, but if the person depicted in the caricature has some kind of physical flaw, that flaw cannot be used to insult that person. Right now I am thinking of a prominent Mongolian politician who has squint eyes. One of his eyes would be looking straight at you, but the other eye would be looking elsewhere. This politician does not walk the talk. But I cannot do a caricature of him, and I can feel some great ideas, but just focusing on his squint eyes would be insulting him.
So, it’s very important for us professionals to follow our professional ethics and morals.
I feel there aren’t that many cartoonists in Mongolia. I may be wrong?
Cartoonists in many countries are relatively few in number. This is, perhaps because besides being a good artist, one has to have extra, perhaps an inherent talent. In France, for example, there are hundreds and thousands of singers, but not that many cartoonists, this is because cartoon drawing, as compared to other forms of fine arts, is not an easy genre. It’s not just drawing, the artists must think humorously and interpret political, social events and developments in a non-standard manner.
Today there are only five of us from among other cartoonists with whom we used to work together before 1990. My teacher Ts. Baidi is training young cartoonists but most of them don’t always do cartoon. There are few cartoonists, perhaps because, cartoons are almost do not have any value. You cannot make a living out of drawing cartoons. But a maniac like me will not care and continue to sketch cartoons whether I make money or not. There are just a handful of artists who genuinely enjoy doing cartoons.
I think that not only individuals but the government too can help increase the value of cartoons, just like any other sector, as I believe different sectors in a society can be developed through policy. In the 1980s cartoons were not developed in China and there wouldn’t be Chinese entries in international cartoon contents, but after the 1990s this situation changed as the Government is supporting cartoon artists and there are many more Chinese cartoon entries in international contests today.
I am, therefore, of the opinion that this form of art will revive with a little policy support. So I am working with the Government News newspaper office and through joint effort we can revive cartoons.
You are also a great collector. What else do you do beside collection?
Lately, I have been working to support of new budding talents. I am helping them organize exhibitions. I am doing this voluntarily because I feel young talents need a little help and guidance before they can venture out into the bigger world of art on their own.
I am proud that a young porcelain-maker Khadkhüü is now quite popular, and he has even been invited for solo exhibitions in Korea and Shanghai, China. With little support and encouragement such young talents need to continue to foster their talent on their own. There are many such young talented people, but because they are either not known to the public or they do not know how to market themselves, their talent fades away. They are like candles without matches to lite them up. Since I have the matchstick, I might as well light up their talent.
I have been collecting music disks since the 1970s and I still have a passion for this hobby, and my collection has Smokey, Queen and many others. I have even set up a music disk club in my Facebook and now music disk is being once again sold and listening to disk is regaining popularity. I am trying to contribute to metropolitan culture.
I also collect books. Some people ask me if I read all the books I buy for my collection, (Laughs and continued) who the nuts would read all the books you buy. As a matter of fact, 70 percent of all my books are illustrated albums on art, that is albums for professionals. In the past everyone, even children loved reading books, which was a kind of mental physical training and also reading books helped improve vocabulary. Lately young people make lot of grammatical error in their writing simply because they have stopped reading books.
I am a city dweller and I wish there would be many more people who would walk abreast of mankind and be erudite and knowledgeable. A society full of such people will not have any issue.