Exiled from their own land since birth, a new generation of Tibetan artists is producing challenging art that the Chinese Communist Party cannot control.
At an ongoing solo show of works by artist Tsherin Sherpa at the Rossi & Rossi Hong Kong gallery, the images that jump at the viewer from the walls are like unexpected bolts: a wrathful Tibetan deity deconstructed and rearranged to look like a mistaken puzzle; or powerful, slightly alarming gods clad in prominent, functional underwear.
In other works, born out of the devastation brought to Nepal by last year’s earthquake, computer-elaborated vortexes of sacred images on a gold background literally turn on their head the gods they represent, starting an innovative dialog with Buddhism, the most sacred of all Tibetan traditions. It is a conversation that is born from freedom, as much as from exile, and that deeply redefines all the assumptions of spirituality, holiness, and transcendence that many associate with Tibetan culture and identity.
Up in flames
Another artist represented by Rossi & Rossi is Tenzing Rigdol, who also had a recent solo show at the gallery. He engages even more directly with a political message, and he too contributes to this striking redefinition of Tibetan identity. In his works, serene Buddha silhouettes clad in flowing monk robes are consumed by flames that fill the space where the face ought to be—a painful reference to the numerous self-immolations that have rocked the Tibetan plateau in protest against Chinese rule.
In other examples of these striking silhouettes, the Buddha’s facial features are substituted with pictures of a medley of consumer goods, or collages of photographs of anti-Chinese protests paired with those of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army.
Rigdol and Sherpa are among the most impressive representatives of a group of artists coming out of the exiled Tibetan community who are well versed in Tibetan traditional art, but know how to use it to address the sense of dislocation and the quest for cultural coherence experienced by the diaspora.
Sherpa, 48 and born in Nepal, was trained as a classical thangka (a type of sacred painting in Tibetan Buddhism) painter by his father, a Tibetan refugee. After having practiced the traditional style for decades, he decided to question it head on.
Rigdol, 34, also born in Nepal, grew up with a permanent longing for an unseen land—the hallmark of the exiled. One of his most famous projects is the documentary Bringing Tibet Home (2013), about the making of his art project “Our Land, Our People.” For the latter he brought 20,000 kg of Tibetan soil to Dharamsala, in India, where Tibetan exiles and the Dalai Lama live, so that the displaced community could touch it and step on it.
The work of these artists can only be produced outside of the Tibetan plateau itself. The control of the Tibetan region by the Chinese authorities leaves no space for this kind of politically challenging art.
A new identity
Yet the greater freedom allowed by the tragic experience of exile is able to propose a new definition of what it is to be modern and Tibetan. It is a new identity that challenges both the attempts at keeping a culture artificially immobile in the pain of exile, and the Chinese Communist Party’s attempt at controlling Tibetan culture (paywall).
Tsherin Sherpa told Quartz at the opening of his solo show on Sept. 24:
Growing up, I was not very conscious of the fear of losing my culture. It was my father that did all the worrying on that. What worried me most was the growing commercialization of thangkas that happened in the ’60s and ’70s, when Nepal became a touristic destination and the Tibetans in Boudhanath (Kathamndu) started to do industrial production of paintings for sale, to keep up with the demand. It was proving destructive of all the knowledge accumulated through the years, that required a classically trained painter to be capable of mixing the pigment and preparing the brushes, not just fill in the colors by going over someone else’s lines.
Yet, Sherpa does not believe in immobility, either:
I studied these images as part of a static vocabulary that we were taught, to preserve our culture, but then I decided to use them to create my own sentences, to address the lack of connection felt by my generation. There is no strict definition of what it is to be a Tibetan in the environment I grew up in. My work deals a lot with dislocation—trying to understand what happens to an object once you take it out of its natural environment.
Rigdol, after a projection of Bringing Tibet Home at the Asia Society in Hong Kong, also addressed the problem of dislocation: “We are constantly referring to a land we cannot hope to set foot on. So I decided to try and allow us to see that land,” he told Quartz.
His “Our Land, Our People” project saw children being taken to walk on the transported soil, while old people born in Tibet would step on it reverentially while holding praying beads in their hands.
But if Rigdol subverted the idea of what exactly is the homeland, his successive works on immolations and political strife brought matters unspeakable in Tibet even more out into the open.
“Some of the issues they grapple with are shared by Tibetan artists who live inside and outside of Tibet. There is a dialog between the two,” said Fabio Rossi, the co-owner of the Rossi & Rossi gallery. “Even if in recent years contemporary artists from Tibet have not been allowed to travel at all. So it is easier for those on the outside to reflect on the meaning of tradition, and of exile.”
Those reflections are, thankfully, well beyond the reach of what the Chinese Communist Party might wish the definition of “Tibetan” to be.
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