The legendary Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century, came to power by uniting the scattered tribes of Central Asia. According to Buryat myths, he is their forefather, as recounted in The Secret History of the Mongols. A male wolf and a female deer travelled through the Hun-lun Lake to Buerhan Mountain, the source of the Onon River, and down to the highlands. By the order of an oracle, the couple had a child, Batachiqan, who became the ancestor of Genghis Khan.
Khan’s great name and his deeds are shrouded in mystery as his exploits are passed from generation to generation. He is regarded as sacred, and it is taboo to create images of him or speak loudly about him. Yet Namdakov accepted the role of art director for the film Mongol (2007), directed by Sergey Bodrov, Senior. As the artist explained, ‘When Bodrov invited me, I tried to say “no” at first as I understood the risk: if the film is a failure or portrays Genghis Khan negatively, my people will simply damn me’. However, after consulting his spiritual teacher, he decided it would be most responsible to take part, contributing his integrity and cultural knowledge. When the film came out it enjoyed huge success: it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and won six Nika Awards in Russia, among them Best Art Direction for Namdakov.
Research into the traditional dress and historical artefacts of the Mongolian people was not easy. ‘The problem with nomadic cultures’, says Namdakov, is that ‘everything disappeared in the sand’. His solution was to invoke genetic memory: ‘Most of the images come to me when I am half awake in the morning, and I try to commit them to paper right away’.
Namdakov’s Genghis Khan sculpture, to be installed at Marble Arch in 2012, is made in the style of a traditional equestrian statue. As a person canonised in the East, the warrior is depicted at the moment of descent from heaven with outstretched arms, in a state of contemplation as he faces what lies ahead. Unlike an ordinary nomad, he carries no weapons or banners. His hair and the horse’s mane stream out in the wind as both wait to take the next crucial step. There is a strong mythical and transcendental element to the piece, highlighting the fact that history is essentially a narrative, a tale told through the ages and affected by bias and memory and embellishment. Carefully and sensitively, Namdakov reveals the spiritual state of the leader who was to change the medieval world.