Art

Under Western Influence, Tibetan Artists Turn to Identity Politics

Sodhon, New Life in New York (2014)
Sodhon, “New Life in New York” (2014), acrylic on canvas (all images courtesy Transcending Tibet/Trace Foundation)

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Trace Foundation commissioned 30 works from contemporary Tibetan and Tibet-influenced Western artists, asking a simple question: what does it mean to be Tibetan today? The show, co-curated over the course of two years by David Quadrio, the director of Arthub, and the Trace Foundation, offers an international selection of artists living in diaspora from Switzerland, Amsterdam, Italy, Nepal, China and the United States, and is accompanied by a trilingual hardcover catalog (English, Tibetan, Chinese). Events kicked off on March 12 with an artists panel in the foundation’s Latse Library, followed by an exhibit at Rogue Space in Chelsea, and concludes with a fashion show and live auction on April 9th at the Paddle8 online auction space. According to Gade, who is one of the artists featured in the show, this is a remarkable achievement since the development of Tibetan contemporary art, which began only in 2000 (prior to then, artists were still making religious painting), grew with the formation of of the Gedun Choephal Artist Guild in Lhasa, established in 2003.

Tulku Jamyang,  "Foodism", 2014
Tulku Jamyang, “Foodism” detail (2014), painted incense, burnt rice paper over cardboard (click to enlarge)

Traditional Tibetan art, including thangka painting, is pretty psychedelic by Western standards with its colorful deities, flags, animals, and landscapes, and it’s logical those Tibetan artists with a background in cartoon, illustration, and traditional thangka painting would take to the pastiche that is modern, urban contemporary life, and make it their own. The Indo-Tibetan traditional use of gridlines, creating figure-ground compositions, gives meaning and shape to iconic images that aid Buddhist ritual, contemplation, and practice. Modern art eschews that aesthetic approach, yet many of the exhibited artists were trained in those traditional iconographic practices where painting is considered a craft, not a means of personal expression. Once they experienced the Tibetan diaspora, artists were freed of those constraints, and what they saw was cultural dislocation and identity politics.  

Tenzin Phakmo, "The Journey", 2014
Tenzin Phakmo, “The Journey” (2014), oil on canvas (click to enlarge)

The show is a paean to Tibetan artists nimble enough to adapt to new environments with lightening speed, as well as a snapshot of newly minted consumer culture overload. Some, like Nyima Dhondup, Rabkar Wangchuk, and Tulku Jamyang, were practicing monks as well as artists. Livia Liverani, Michela Martello, Rima Fujita, and Mirella Virgili clock in as Western artists influenced by Tibetan culture and religion, an especially savvy curatorial insight that notes that the aesthetic cultural door swings both ways. Sonam Dolma Brauen and Tulku Jamyang weigh in as the artists with the most gravitas. Jamyang works with dots of incense-burned rice paper over cardboard, an effect that gives the initial impression of being a traditional calligraphic work. Brauen’s folded, stained, and used monks robes, stacked to make the installation “My Father’s Death,” stand out as the simplest, yet most contemporary piece in the show with a meaning far beyond the frayed cotton threads, maroon dye, and washed away stains of butterfat. The folds emulate order, putting something away for burial, and memory retrieved for private solace.

Sonam Dolma Brauen, "My Father's Death", 2010
Sonam Dolma Brauen, “My Father’s Death” (2010), 49 monks robes from Lhasa, plaster
Gonkar Gyatso, "My Identity No. 5", 2014
Gonkar Gyatso, “My Identity No. 5” (2014), C-print

Gonkar Gyatso, a Tibetan-born New York State-based artist who exhibited in the 53rd Venice Biennale, has updated his original four-part 2003 photographic series My Identity with a new, fifth 2014 refashioning of his jumbled iconic and semiotic transpositions of who he is, has been, and is becoming. Other Tibetan artists follow with their own brand of disassembled identity politics, from Gade’s Mickey Mouse monk in a cave reading Mao’s Little Red Book to Rabkar Wangchuk’s image of a peaceful warrior crowned by an image of Buddha; from Sodhon’s self-portrait wearing a New York Yankee hat to Tashi Norbu’s painting advertising “Urban Tibet” like a brand name; and from Tenzin Phakmo’s painting of yaks by the Brooklyn Bridge to Tsering Dolma’s image of a woman devouring the earth. And, in the most sly and understated manner of all, there’s Tserang Dhundrup and his photorealistic technique in his painting of a typical Eastern Tibetan clad in blue jeans and a Nike down jacket, sitting on an urban park bench, hair braided in traditional silver and coral, staring out into space, his right hand grasping his precious iPhone. He could be sitting anywhere in the world, meaning he resides nowhere — and everywhere.

Tserang Dhundrup, "Gold iPhone", 2014
Tserang Dhundrup, “Gold iPhone” (2014), oil on canvas

It’s important to note that the Gendun Choepal School in Lhasa began when the Trace Foundation, in conjunction with the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island and the Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side, sponsored four artist residences in 2001 inviting Gade, Tserang Dhundrup, Benchung, and Tsering Dorje to spend four months in New York City. They were so inspired by the idea of artist-run spaces, they raced back home and set up their very own. This exhibit is the fruit of that encounter with the New York art world and the consequent opening of the Gendun Choephel Gallery in Lhasa in 2006, and the 2007 exhibit at Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, Lhasa, New Art From Tibet. In 2010 the renown Chinese art critic and curator Li Xianting mounted The Scorching Sun of Tibet” at the Sonzhuang Art Center outside Beijing, comprised of 52 Tibetan artists. It was one of the largest exhibitions of contemporary Tibetan art ever put together. With Transcending Tibet, this small group of dedicated artists show they are now entering the global world stage.  

Tsering Dolma, "Desire", 2014
Tsering Dolma, “Desire” (2014), oil on canvas

Transcending Tibet: Mapping Contemporary Tibetan Art in the Global Context continues at Rogue Space (508 W 26th Street, 9E-F, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 12. The Transcending Tibet auction with Paddle 8 is live through April 10.

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