Otto Bjornik’s Shah Mat Dunny Chess Set Reviewed

Hi, everyone. I’m the art toy advocate, Nick Curtis, and
right now you’re watching me play a game of chess. For those of you that are chess aficionados,
you might recognize where the game being played is leading: to the quite famous and fast endgame
gambit known as the Sea Cadet Mate. But of more note than the moves being used
is the pieces that are being played with. This is artist Otto Bjornik’s Shah Mat designer
toy set. Bjornik’s love of chess began with his father,
the two of them spending hours playing against each other. As an illustrator, Bjornik first explored
giving life and individual character to chess pieces through a series he titled Shah Mat. Named after the Farsi phrase for “the King
is helpless,” which led to the term checkmate, it wouldn’t be long before Bjornik
evolved this concept further. Upon discovering the art toy movement, Bjornik
began using vinyl forms — like Kidrobot’s Dunny — as canvases for his art, incorporating
his own sculptural elements onto them. He released Shah Mat II: The Great Sartorial
Conundrum in late 2011. With all the vinyl figures modified and hand-painted
by Bjornik, it was a beautiful, one-of-a-kind work that garnered the artist much attention. And, to satisfy continued interest, Bjornik
handmade small editions in 2012 of the Kings and Queens in both 3” and 9” tall versions. These original works allowed Bjornik to craft
a narrative for his chess pieces, one that would give a greater unity to the art. He envisioned a battle between the scarf-wearing
Whites and the belt-strapped Blacks, each trying to prove their king’s claim as the
Supreme Wearer of the Checkered Cloth. Taking place on the fields of Sirib, named
after his father’s hometown in the Philippines, this cohesive vision can still be seen on
this production version from Kidrobot. The company approached Bjornik in 2014 to
design four pawns for a proposed multi-artist series, one that would have included works
by the likes of Nathan Jurevicius, Frank Kozik, Kronk, Jeremy Madl, 64 Colors, and Scott Tolleson. While that chess-themed series was abandoned,
it did lead the way to this solo mini-series. All these individual pieces use the Dunny’s
basic form, though they have been modified to truly express Bjornik’s aesthetic. The Rooks are the closest to the traditional
Dunny shape, relying on the addition of boots, a helmet, a bow, and quiver of arrows to wonderfully
make the sculptural forms unique. The cloaked Kings and Queens look very similar
to Bjornik’s 2014 Mayari Dunny, though the sculpted trim element is new here. The Knights, in contrast to those legless
designs, are armored centaurs, each holding aloft a lance. And, finally, the staff-wielding Bishops and
knife carrying Pawns, both using the same basic body, the rabbit-like Dunny head atop
a legless base, implying either a robe or dress adorning them. All these pieces employ Bjornik’s strikingly
minimalist style, the beautifully painted bold eyes really granting character and soul
to each figure. Now you might’ve noticed that all the Pawns
are female, and this isn’t a coincidence. The series is subtitled “A Deadly Race to
the Eighth Square,” referencing the perilous journey a Pawn must make across the board
to reach the other side. And, once there, the Pawn is transformed by
chess rules into the noble figure of the player’s choice, which most commonly is the Queen. Any socio-political implications aside, the
tale of the Pawn becoming a Queen is a fascinating one. And a great focal point for the series. The Shah Mat series was issued in a blind
box manner, meaning that the contents of what you’re buying are hidden at the time of
purchase. Unlike the normal one piece per box, which
I discussed in my review of Amanda Visell’s Ferals line, these were sold in two-packs,
each containing one Pawn and one Nobility figure as well as four of the interlocking
tiles used to create this board. And while it might look large, this chessboard
is actually 18” by 18”, solidly within the standard sizes one normally finds. The works were created in ratioed editions
that perfectly reflect the pieces on the chessboard: 4 rooks per 32 boxes, as well as 4 bishops,
4 knights, 2 queens, and… Hmm, the ratio for the King seems off. That’s because there
was also a secret figure randomly inserted in some boxes, King Midas. A golden colored
King figure named after the man cursed with turning everything he touched into gold in
Greek mythology. Aside from the blind boxed method, there are signed and numbered edition
sets of Shah Mat that come complete save for the Midas piece. Also of note is that Kidrobot
has issued a 20” tall production Dunny from Bjornik: it’s titled Reyna, the Filipino
word for Queen, and its design is a true upscaling of the piece from this set. Otto Bjornik’s Shah Mat series and Reyna
Dunny are available now from specialty shops worldwide as well as from directly. Thank you for watching me, Nick Curtis, the
art toy advocate. Let me know your thoughts on Otto Bjornik’s
Shah Mat series by commenting below as well as liking — or disliking — this video
on YouTube. And please remember to subscribe to the CoART YouTube channel to be kept up-to-date
on my reviews.

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