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Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond

Hood Quarterly, autumn/winter 2010-11
25th Anniversary Issue

There is no Tibetan equivalent for the word “art” as it is defined in the West.

The closest approximation is lha dri pa—literally, “to draw a deity.” Traditionally, neither the Tibetan language nor the Tibetan cultural framework has recognized art for art’s sake, and an artist’s efficacy rests in his ability to precisely replicate an established visual language and portray the essence of a particular deity.

This puts contemporary Tibetan artists in a precarious position. While their work is informed by Tibetan artistic traditions, the majority of these artists do not live in Tibet, and some never have. The challenge for contemporary Tibetan artists, then, is twofold: as they forge a name for themselves in the competitive art world, they must also try to find their own place within Tibet’s rich and formalized artistic legacy. What does it mean to be a Tibetan artist who does not follow Tibetan artistic prescriptions? Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond features artists who grapple with these very issues of cultural and artistic negotiation and who work with traditional forms in innovative ways. Technology, travel, displacement, and personal artistic freedom have informed their individual responses to the complex interaction between tradition and modernity in both art and culture. The artists— Dedron, Gonkar Gyatso, Losang Gyatso, Kesang Lamdark, Tenzin Norbu, Tenzing Rigdol, Pema Rinzin, Tsherin Sherpa, and Penba Wangdu— were invited to submit new and recent works. Specific works by the same artists were then selected from private collections to complement these new pieces and highlight each artist’s range.

Of the artists, five were born in Tibet, three come from Nepal and one was born in India. Dedron (the only woman featured in the exhibition and one of a handful of Tibetan woman artists), Tenzin Norbu, and Penba Wangdu continue to live in their Himalayan homelands, while the others have emigrated to Europe and the United States at different stages in their lives. The majority of these artists are trained in traditional painting and the strict interpretations prescribed by Buddhist religion—spiritual formulas and artistic norms from which they break by experimenting with alternative media and by extracting sacred symbols from their religious context, repurposing them for self-expression.

Many of their works consistently juxtapose and merge the sacred with the profane. The large Buddha in Gonkar Gyatso’s L.A. Confidential (2007) is filled with tiny, disarmingly colorful stickers. Though born in Lhasa, Gyatso describes his life as “imbued with Chinese tradition,” a source of great frustration and disconnect from the cultural observations of previous generations of Tibetans. It is this cultural rift that Gyatso explores in his art.

Tsherin Sherpa makes a case for the value of transforming traditions. His Preservation Project #1 (2009) warns against the pitfalls of forced cultural preservation. It features the Buddha’s head and many hands in the shape of various mudras, all pressed against the inside of a glass jar. Sherpa describes his painting as “an attempt to question and provoke all of us to check and see how we are actually preserving” traditions. For Sherpa and for many of these artists, Tibet’s traditions may be kept alive and relevant through their very transformations.

The exhibition is on view from January through March 2011 and is on loan from the Rubin Museum of Art, New York.

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