SALEM, Mass. — Artist Tsherin Sherpa was eating lunch one day in the cafe at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, taking a break from his demonstration of traditional Tibetan thangka painting, when he noticed that woman was crying while watching him eat his chips and drink his Coke. Sherpa asked her if something was wrong, “and she said, ‘I feel so bad we corrupted you!’”
During our recent Zoom interview, Sherpa laughed gently at the memory. He now occasionally refers to himself as a “corrupted thangka artist.”
Sherpa had studied thangka painting somewhat unwillingly with his father, a master of the form, while growing up in Kathmandu. Over the course of years, he learned the exacting process of depicting Buddhist deities and teachers in canonical poses that dictated every detail, down to the crook of a finger.
In 1998, frustrated with the difficulty of making a living as an artist in Nepal, Sherpa moved to California. When he arrived, he was encouraged by the fact that Americans went to museums to see traditional Tibetan art. But he soon found himself negotiating a complicated set of expectations and assumptions about who he was as a Himalayan artist.
Sherpa’s first retrospective exhibition, Spirits, is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through May 29. The woman pained at Sherpa’s Coca-Cola “corruption” would be absolutely bewildered by the artist’s anarchic, playful, ambiguous paintings, in which Tibet and California, thangka and pop art, Buddha and Mickey Mouse mingle and morph to create a new visual language. Like other contemporary Himalayan artists (Tenzing Rigdol, Gonkar Gyatso), he uses traditional iconography — but not to comment on Buddhism; he insists emphatically that “no religious connotation” is in his painting. His work instead explores concerns that are both deeply personal and expressive of the common need to find a place in a changing world.
In northern California, Sherpa learned that White Westerners often put Tibetans “in a box where you can’t be yourself, as normal as anybody.” He saw other Tibetan artists trying to stay in this box, acting in a way that satisfied the expectations the West projected upon them. But he “needed to shatter this projection. I needed to respond to it.” He began to paint the series of works in this show by imagining how the guardian spirits from his grandmother’s stories might react in a foreign land.
Seeing Sherpa’s works collected in one place, and displayed in chronological order, is uniquely revelatory; viewers are inducted into a personal vocabulary, a private mythos, that deepens the experience of each individual piece. As these figures metamorphose throughout the cycle, their skin draining of color or invaded by new, dynamic patterns, their stance moving from crouched to triumphant over the years, we start to see a whole narrative of development, a story of self-recognition and defiance, in the transformation of motifs from one work to another.
In the first paintings of the series, the godlings hunker rudely on the canvases, peering out at modernity with an intense, deeply alien gaze at once curious, searching, and wary. They are entities from outside of time confronting the secular. In “Two Spirits” (2010), for example, two formerly wrathful deities crouch near a collection of alphabet blocks: the A-B-Cs. They tentatively investigate the artifacts of a foreign language, while above them, ignored, the golden air is alive with butterflies — some emanation of their power that they themselves take for granted. In “Spirit” (2009), viewers are confronted by one of Tibet’s traditional guardians, Mahakala, who stares out at us with at least as much attention as we’re giving him. But while his head is drawn according to the geometric canons of traditional thangka painting, his body, in its hunker (modeled after Sherpa’s own body), is made up of photographs of Tibetans in exile all around the world. The guardian himself is composed of his community; he is at once a protector and the embodiment of diaspora, a stranger in a strange land. In other paintings from this period, squatting gods crawl toward the Rubik’s Cube or are surrounded by auras of copyrighted Americana (the McDonald’s arches, the Shell logo, a regurgitated Californian yin-yang).
This early work is more obviously pointed in its satire than the later work. In “Shambhala” (2013), an imprisoned god poses for a black and white mugshot, holding a card that lists his prisoner number and hometown (Shambhala, the mythical Himalayan kingdom). The god’s incarceration echoes the brutal 70-year occupation of Tibet itself. But his numinous strength shines through the mugshot: flames still flicker red, the attendant butterflies show up in color through the monochrome gloom.
Walking through the exhibition and following the sweep of Sherpa’s development through the series, we can see these spirit-figures transform as the years go by. No longer do they stoop, bemused. Now they stand defiantly, arms raised and crossed, stepping out in Travolta poses, impudent, proud, elated. In the exhibition’s final room, showcasing the most recent work, the gods have a new ease. Their poses are unselfconscious (if sometimes in the very deliberate way of someone mugging for TikTok). “Four Spirits” (2019–20) almost recalls snaps captured by friends on celestial cell phones. The spirits’ casual informality is in stark contrast to the grid lines behind them, a remnant of the thangka-painting process wherein the deities’ poses and proportions are determined by ancient formulae.
In this narrative context, with the work in conversation with itself, specific motifs recur — the butterflies, for example, or the superhero tighty-whiteys many of the gods wear, occasionally branded with Damien Hirst polka dots. These motifs become inflected with their own private meanings. One recurring element is the use of anamorphic swirls and spirals that Sherpa created for a previous series of paintings (“Protectors”) by taking his stable thangka images and subjecting them to extreme distortion effects on Photoshop, then tracing selections onto his canvases. They begin to invade the “Spirit” paintings, first as background elements, spiral blasts of divine energy. Eventually, the bodies of the gods are inhabited by these “Protectors” — in the final paintings of the series, they become the constitutive flesh of the gods. In “Spirits (Metamorphosis)” (2019–20), for instance, we encounter the same two gods who appeared years earlier in “Two Spirits,” crouched curiously over alphabet blocks. Now their human-toned flesh melts and gives way to the blaring swirl of energies contained within them; the blocks are gone, and the spirits seem to be investigating the butterflies that flew between them previously unnoticed: a transformation of self-assurance.
This is not to suggest that Sherpa’s work is simple or unambiguous in its symbolism. Yes, the range of flesh tones, human or supernatural, throughout the series often run molten down chests and limbs — but are these bodies draining their divinity and becoming human, or are these humans newly splashed with the godhead? The decision seems to be left to the viewer.
Perhaps the most important ambiguity in the work is Sherpa’s approach to the detritus of American pop culture. Bart Simpson may appear as frequently in the Nepali’s work as Mahakala (though subtly, minute, in haloes or silhouettes); after all, licensed characters like young Simpson, Snoopy, Mickey, and Spiderman do bear a certain resemblance to Himalayan deities, in that their proportions are strictly determined for artists by a canonical grid. But their inclusion, surrounded by corporate logos for fast food and mass media, never suggests some kind of easy, postlapsarian narrative of the immigrant tainted by Western pop culture. In one painting (“OMG,” 2016), the deity’s body is actually inscribed with old cartoon images — as if he, too, is constructed by this culture — just as Sherpa himself was brought up not simply on the sacred proportions of thangka painting, but on comics, cartoons, and Bollywood blockbusters.
Sherpa leaves viewers to decide how to read these recurring symbols — the real gift of the exhibition is its invitation to explore the many facets of these transformations.
The show also includes a selection of line drawings of Tibetan motifs by British scholar Robert Beer, crisply and lucidly executed, which illustrate some of the motivic building blocks and geometrical substrates of traditional Tibetan iconography. Sherpa praises Beer’s work (“It’s really amazing”) and points out that even in Nepal, it is often used for reference by young thangka painters — and tattoo artists.
Sherpa has gained well-deserved recognition, with works in the permanent collections of US museums and a commission to represent Nepal in the country’s first Venice Biennale pavilion. Reestablishing himself in Nepal shortly before the devastating 2015 earthquake meant another shift in his conception of his career. After a friend’s daughter visited his studio and asked why the spirits were all male, he told us he realized “it’s not just about me as an individual [anymore]. It’s not just my alter ego or whatever. It should be more about the community.”
Sherpa began painting both male and female spirits, while also creating community by employing young artists in his studio and, in 2020, founding the Windhorse Gallery to show the work of Himalayan artists who are a part of the country’s vibrant contemporary art scene. But he is also seeking to support traditional art forms.
A new stage in his push for collaboration began with a clank. Working in his new studio in Boudhanath, a largely Tibetan suburb of Kathmandu, Sherpa kept hearing a distracting noise, an irritating rhythmic smack. When he tracked down its source, he found the metalworker Rajen Shah hammering copper sheets into mandalas. Shah was a master practitioner of the repoussé technique that has produced masterpieces in Nepal for centuries, but he told Sherpa that he was about to leave his home country to work in construction, as many Nepalese men have done in recent decades, because it was impossible to support his family with his craft. He mainly sold to tourists who looked for bargains and valued mass-produced objects as much as handmade ones.
Sherpa told Shah he was a contemporary artist and proposed a collaboration: they could make a piece, have it exhibited around the world, and get both Shah and other repoussé workers more attention. The first problem, as Sherpa put it, is that Shah “has no idea what contemporary art means … I had to show him my catalogues and newspaper clippings” to make him believe that Sherpa could fulfill his promises of wider recognition. Soon, Shah and Sherpa created the installation “Wish-Fulfilling Tree” (2019). With the horrific memories of the 2015 earthquake fresh in his mind, Sherpa asked hundreds of people staying in a shelter while their earthquake-damaged houses were repaired to write their wishes on small-denomination bills. The bills were then put into an elaborate repoussé structure based on mandala design, which rises, clean and shining, from ruin. The piece was originally surrounded by debris from the earthquake. Sherpa has asked curators of the traveling show to collect discarded objects from areas near exhibition venues. The Peabody Essex show situates the intricately wrought, three-dimensional mandala in a ring of local North Shore detritus, which unfortunately doesn’t have quite the plangent emotional power originally intended. Visitors are invited to write their own wishes on slips of paper to be added to the piece, to produce their own private context. The piece is a testament to a new phase in Sherpa’s work, emphasizing collaboration and community.
Sherpa remembers that when he decided to leave Nepal as a young man, he had little respect for thangka painting, “because it was becoming more and more of a souvenir product rather than a genuine art form.” He saw that his father, once a highly respected artist, was just scraping by. Both tourists and Nepalis “opted for something faster and cheaper” than traditional techniques. Now, he understands that he was “running away from traditional art” not because of any limitations of form, but “because the community respect was not there.” He hopes to encourage Nepalis to value traditional art forms as well as new artistic directions. As he points out, many Nepalis don’t take their own artists seriously until they’ve succeeded in the West. So, one collaboration at a time, Sherpa demonstrates the value of Nepali and Tibetan art to the world, and to its own community.
Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa with Robert Beer continues at the Peabody Essex Museum (161 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts) through May 29. The exhibition was organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in partnership with the Peabody Essex Museum and with support from Dr. Siddhartha V. Shah. It was curated by Dr. John Henry Rice of the VMFA with Lan Morgan as the coordinating curator at the PEM.