Otto Bjornik’s Shah Mat Series

Pictured below is a game of chess that I’m playing with myself. For those of you that are chess aficionados, you might recognize the game as being 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 being played with. This is artist Otto Bjornik’s Shah Mat (2016) designer toy set.

The History of the Shah Mat Series

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 an illustration series he titled Shah Mat (2007). Named after the Farsi phrase for “the King is helpless,” which led way 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 the production version from Kidrobot.
Otto Bjornik's Shah Mat - Overview

My Overall Impressions of the Shah Mat Series

The company approached Bjornik in 2014 to design four pawns for a proposed multi-artist series, one that would include 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 Bjornik’s solo mini-series.

While all the individual pieces use the Dunny’s basic form, 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 form 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 use 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 in order reach the other side of the board. 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 this 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 how this normally has 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 ratio 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.

Specific Works in the Shah Mat Series [show]

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