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Tradition / Video

Leather sculptor tells stories on horseback

By Niu Jingjing

December 14

Mu Ren, a Mongolian man, sculpts cattle hides into works of art inspired by the daily lives of people who “live on horses.”

Mu Ren, a Mongolian man, sculpts cattle hides into works of art inspired by the daily lives of people who “live on horses.”

In Mu’s studio, an ordinary two-story store in Hohhot, North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, hundreds of leather artworks can be seen everywhere. They are all items or figures related to the Mongol nationality.

What he has been working on, essentially, is creating three-dimensional Mongolian art by carving and shaping the leather. As opposed to the traditional Mongolian practice of leather painting, Mu uses his inspiration to sculpt, with a large dose of artistic license, the leather into a work of art.

The Mongolian leather sculptures are hung or placed in Mu Ren’s studio in Hohot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. [Image Credit: Jingjing]
“Leather sculpting works feature a better sense of space and visual impact,” Mu said, “a piece of cattle hide can be coned up to more than 10 centimeters high.”

Born in Hure Banner, Inner Mongolia in 1982, Mu grew up in the pastoral area. His parents were common herdsman, and like other Mongolian families in 1980s, the women did housework in the ger (home) and men went out herding.

“I often rode horses until I went to school. At that time, I used to see my father make or repair harnesses,” Mu recalled.

“I still can remember that my father made a horse lock out of leather to prevent horses running away every four or five days. As the rope was too soft to chain the horses that were hard to tame and they also made the horses’ legs bleed, he made a kind of special leather, which he boiled and soaked in yogurt.”

Mu Ren takes a photo with one his horses at his hometown. [Image Credit: Mu Ren]
Being the second son in the Mongolian family, Mu was interested in helping his father make horse-related leathers. At that time, he never thought it would end up being his career.

He chose the major of decorative artistic design in university, as he considered making things by hand was more realistic and genuine than studies that are more abstract and intangible.

However, the most significant thing in his career happened when he visited an exhibition held at the Inner Mongolian Art Museum in 2005. It exhibited leather artworks made with the guidance of a Japanese leather craft master who devoted herself to combining the Japanese modern leather craft with the traditional Mongolian leather craft.

At that moment, he realized he could make art, as opposed to day-to-day items, with animal skin. Then he began to attend professional training overseas, trying to find his own artistic way.

“After graduating in 2007, I became a college teacher so that I could study and research the craft. Gradually, I found that it was common to carve patterns on leather. I wanted to do something special, so I started to study how to make use of the elasticity of the animal skin to shape it.”

From 2007 to 2015, Mu’s works continue to receive regional and national prizes, and he has become a master of modern Mongolian leather craft.

Many of the works he created are themed on the horses or Mongolian totems.

Mu Ren shows one of his works, which is called “The Wolf and White Deer”. [Image Credit: Jingjing]
He believes the Mongolians and the horse are inseparable, thus it is natural for him to take the animal as a theme of design.

In the past, every horse in a Mongolian tribe was branded to mark ownership. There were thousands of horse prints that Mu believes to be a rich and great source of inspiration.

“The Mongols have such a long history that there are abundant elements that can be used and stories to tell,” he said.

So far, about 200 college students have learned from Mu, and most of them are on their way to carry this Mongolian art forward.

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