Continuously Rotating Prayer Wheels: a conversation with Mu curator and artist Gerel Puteeva8 min read

 In Culture, Interview, Russia
Lossi 36 sits down with artist and art curator Gerel Puteeva. Along with three other creatives, Puteeva curated Kalmykia’s first contemporary art exhibition, called Mu, which was on view from October 3rd to 5th at the Amur-Sanan National Library in Elista. This is one of many conversations with artists from our new exhibit, Kalmyk Contemporary

Where are you based? What is your training as an artist?

I’m based in Moscow, but I was born and grew up in a village in Kalmykia. I’m self-taught in art – we didn’t have an art school in my village. As a kid, I wanted to learn how to draw because my brother was also self-taught and drew extremely well. I was mesmerized by his ability to transfer images from his head onto paper. 

Later I just worked on my technique without putting much thought into what I drew or painted. I started making art that was more thoughtful and began posting it online during the lockdown in 2020.

What are some of the differences between the art scenes in Kalmykia and Moscow? 

It’s very hard to compare the contemporary art scenes in Moscow and Kalmykia because they’re in very different stages of development. This is a result of over-centralization: Moscow is like a separate country inside Russia. Our exhibition in October 2021 was one of the first contemporary art exhibits ever in Kalmykia. I feel like our local art scene was very fragmented, but I hope that this exhibit will turn out to be a first step towards forming a supportive collaborative community.

As for Moscow’s art scene – I’m not really integrated into it, and for now, I’m okay with that. I’m acquainted with and talk to a lot of mostly female non-white feminist artists and activists from all around Russia, Kazakhstan and Europe, and I feel like it’s a great environment for me.

You recently took part in Mu, a contemporary art exhibit in Elista, hosted at the Amur-Sanan National Library. This is one of the first exhibits of this kind in Elista. Tell us more about the process of forming a collective with other artists and the process of creating, curating, and exhibiting together.

The idea of setting up a joint exhibition came to us at an art residency in Ufa, where I met Vika Sarangova. This was the first time I met another contemporary artist from Kalmykia, so naturally, we decided to organize something in our home region. Later I met another great Kalmyk artist, Kristina Dobr, and together we contacted Gerel Erendzhenova who works at Todo Media.

Pretty much every open-minded person in Kalmykia knows of Todo Media, so it was pretty easy to reach our target audience through them, which we are very grateful for. When we posted an open call to find more artists for an exhibit, a lot of people reached out. 

Todo already had a lot of experience organizing events in Elista, so Gerel was able to form many great connections. She knew people from the Amur-Sanan library, and they kindly agreed to let us use their space absolutely for free. Then Gerel connected us with Ishkya-ger – they are a company that makes kibitkas [a type of yurt, ed.] – and they agreed to let us borrow a kibitka frame which we used as a wall to place art on. Some artists and friends helped us with the installation, and that’s pretty much it. We only spent money on printing photos and digital art. Everything else was donated by the local community.

Because I have lived in Moscow for the last ten years and only visit my family once or twice a year, I often feel like an outsider in Kalmykia. Therefore, the experience of organizing this event and meeting these great and kind people was healing for me. After ten years of Moscow rejecting me and Kalmykia drifting away from me, I briefly felt like I was truly at home with my people. 

Puteeva at the opening reception of Mu

“Mu” means “bad” in Kalmyk.  The exhibit was named Mu to scare away evil spirits from this exhibition. How does your work embody this idea?

We named our exhibit Mu as a kind of a joke and self-irony. We didn’t really have a theme, and we couldn’t afford to cut off any talented artists just because they didn’t fit our “concept”. We decided that it’s much more important to include everyone and create a community rather than to have a perfect by-the-book exhibit with a distinct theme. We didn’t even have a curator or relevant experience in curating. So we decided to call it a “bad” exhibition because it’s not “proper”, it’s imperfect. And also, as you mentioned, it’s supposed to scare away evil spirits, according to an old Kalmyk tradition. Who wants evil spirits at an exhibition?


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You have been experimenting with 3D animation, especially with the subject matter of pagodas. Pagodas are certainly part of Kalmyk culture, but with your pastel backgrounds and the shiny, toy-like nature of your pagodas you seem to be portraying a narrative of reunification with your native land. Tell us more about your process and what you’d like viewers to take away from the highly immersive experience of watching your 3D pagodas rotate through space.

I made this pagoda on paper before creating a 3D-animated version. My idea was to make a dream-like, shiny version of a pagoda with a self-rotating prayer wheel. I wanted to channel my impressions and memories of visiting my homeland. 

I felt like my experience of visiting Kalmykia changed as I slowly started to accept my heritage. At first, after moving to Moscow as many other Kalmyks do, I felt not only disconnected from Kalmykia but also ashamed of my otherness, non-whiteness, of coming from “nowhere”, of a place many people don’t even know is a part of Russia. On the other hand, when I visited Kalmykia, I felt like it was sad, small, and poor. I’m ashamed to admit that I even felt sorry for people who lived there. Later, I realized it all comes from internalized racism, nationalism, and colonialism, and I started reconnecting with my homeland. When I visited in May of this year, Kalmykia suddenly seemed soft, kind, and radiant. 

After coming back to Moscow, I wanted to channel these emotions by creating a small version of a pagoda, all shiny and colorful, with an automatically rotating prayer wheel. In Buddhism, it is a tradition to rotate prayer wheels by hand – this is equal to oral prayers. 

This piece symbolizes my acceptance of the fact that Kalmykia is beautiful but far away from me, and that the wheels in pagodas continue rotating when I am not there.

Haven’t you forgotten something? Mixed medium: mirror, wooden frame, wax, polymer clay. 40×30 cm

Your mixed media three-dimensional piece Haven’t you forgotten something? is an eerie, almost unwelcome invitation to the viewer. It offers the viewer a fleshy object – a tongue, or a phallic body part, or a sausage. Tell us more about this piece.

This is a work from my triptych on Kalmyk language. We are a small nation, and after the twentieth century’s wars, famine and Stalin’s repressions there is very little of us left. On top of that, as a result of Soviet propaganda and repressions, many Kalmyk people felt ashamed or scared to speak in their native tongue. This trend continued in Russia when I was born – we didn’t speak Kalmyk at home, and I don’t know the language. I can only understand certain words, but can’t form sentences. We were taught Kalmyk at school, but the program was too difficult, as teachers assumed that we were already fluent in Kalmyk. 

Only after I learned about decoloniality through decolonial feminism, I realized how crucial a language is for culture. If I don’t know the language, I can’t read original texts or understand Kalmyk songs. I don’t think like a Kalmychka: my brain and my thoughts are colonized.

I wanted a spectator to look at this piece and see themselves in the mirror while a “melting” wax hand offers them a physical “forgotten tongue”. This creature from behind the mirror is asking them if they have forgotten anything to provoke self-reflection. I chose a “melting” wax hand because our language is considered endangered, and there isn’t much time to fix things and revive our culture. 

Untitled self-portrait. Gouache, and acrylic on primed fibreboard 60×40 cm

Your gouache and watercolor self-portrait, which asks: Why are all the colors wrong? is striking. Tell me about the figure behind you and the forlorn expression on your face.

I made this painting after a derealization episode – it’s when your brain is so stressed that it makes you feel like you’re detached from your body. For me, it’s like your surroundings are movie-like and have some sort of filter on, everything becomes unfamiliar, even your own room. This time my room seemed bluish, cold, and eerie. I felt like I was in an Andrey Zvyagintsev movie. This piece is a little different from my other work since it’s not about national identity, although I think my mental health problems at least partially stem from my experience as a non-white woman in Russia.

You can follow Gerel Puteeva’s work on Instagram and view Lossi 36’s virtual exhibit, Kalmyk Contemporary here.

Featured image: Gerel Puteeva / Katherine Leung
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