For centuries, Tibet has long captured the imagination of many explorers, traders, artists — and later photographers — eager to unfold the tranquil and untouched beauty of “The Land of Snows”. With a population of roughly 6.7 million people, whose rich culture is entrenched in ancient pastoral and spiritual practices, the nomadic and largely secluded way of Tibetan life means its unique arts remain obscure for most. While the nexus of Tibetan art mainly depicts Buddhist veneration — in richly-hued traditional thangka paintings — a budding emergence of artists from the diaspora are eager to revitalise Tibet’s art scene by exploring the sense of self, heritage, and identity. In weaving together the lived experiences of the robust Tibetan people and their daily perseverance in an increasingly consumerist world, contemporary Tibetan artists are challenging global perceptions of their ancestral homeland; bringing the “Roof of the World” out of the margins, and into the spotlight.
For British-Tibetan photographer Rinchen Ato, documenting her father’s homeland in Kham, Qinghai province has been a journey spanning over two decades. Capturing the simplicity of her subjects against the rugged terrain of the land on film, Rinchen offers a candidly raw glimpse into Tibetan life. Her work dispels myths of Tibet that can be perpetuated by a lack of visibility and representation, focusing instead on the quotidian of a rural way of living, and the strong bonds of family and community. Amongst some photographs, a woman ploughs the field alongside two sturdy yaks — the backdrop of a mountain range in view — and in another, Lhamso Tsertso & Lobsang Chödron, she records the girlhood of young twins — albino rabbits cradled in each set of arms. Rinchen asserts her efforts to decolonise existing photography of Tibet: “It’s important that these people are seen as my people, not foreign, but my family, and that the culture is not seen as magical and mysterious.”
Kathmandu-born Tsherin Sherpa studied classical painting at the age of 12, skillfully guided under the wing of his father Master Urgen Dorje, a celebrated thangka artist hailing from Ngyalam, Tibet. Dividing his time between California and Nepal, Tsherin produces a number of fantastical works — explosive, colourful, collage-esque paintings splicing Tibetan iconography and modern issues of diaspora, such as displacement and loss of culture; in his own words, “the dichotomy found where sacred and secular culture collide”. In the expansive All Things Considered, gold leaf illuminates young children under a fragmented sky of tantric hand motifs and celestial demons. Tsherin explains: “Here, I search for equanimity above the current destruction in the world, hoping that the next generation can see past the differences and find some better ground.”
For native Tibetan artist Tsewang Tashi, capturing the human likeness of his subjects through a blend of painting, photography, and digital manipulation remains at the forefront of his life’s work. Born in Lhasa, Tsewang often uses fellow Tibetan people, his physical environment, and contemporary life in order to offer a verisimilitude of Tibetan culture — addressing the romanticised “Shangri-La” fantasy imposed upon the land. His recognisably intimate, zoomed-in portraits bask subjects in illuminated hues of blues, teals, and greens, resulting in an alien-like quality — familiar yet distant at once. “I believe that if contemporary life around us is ignored, real contemporary art cannot be created,” Tsewang remarked on celebrating the human spirit. “I am living in a real society and have feelings and thoughts as other people in the world. I want to speak as humankind in general.”
A graduate of Tibet University’s art department, Lhasa-born Langdun Dedron recalls traditional forms of Tibetan art, in her rich use of colour and nature-inspired detailing. Deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, Langdun’s work serves as a commentary on rapid globalisation and bridging the gap between the pastoral hometown of her childhood and Tibet’s shifting modernisation over the years. She implements elements from various art movements, namely Surrealism, Cubism, and Modernism, to inform her vibrant drawings and paintings, lending her artistic style a hybridity of traditional and contemporary cultures. On her ethos, Langdun stated, “My work is not bound by any rule and stipulation. I have pursued the simplest life of Tibet and beauty of nature, and I use that emotion with earnestness to feel a simple and mysterious painting language.” Langdun is also known for her insightful collaborations with her husband, fellow Tibetan artist Tsering Namgyal; the couple often work side-by-side in quiet contemplation at their studio.
London-based artist Gongkar Gyatso is notable for imbuing the iconography of the cross-legged Buddha to his drawing silhouettes and 3D work. The CSM graduate’s pieces play on whimsical, as he frequently employs hundreds of brightly-coloured stickers — a nod to the noise of pop art — to his statues, acknowledging the tension between his spiritual Tibetan heritage, and the consumerist culture of his later life and home. Looking at his pieces, Golden Wheel, No Love Buddha, and Victory Banner (all 2011), there is an underlying sense of unease as the individual Buddha statues are seemingly suffocated in layers of stickers, even as they appear joyful in their radiance. Referring to the Buddha as his artistic “muse”, Gongkar offers: “In the most overt sense the image of the Buddha is meant as a reflection of everything in the world; the height of enlightenment must be a reflection of everything it sees and tries to understand. For me the form of the Buddha acts as a container.”
The Zurich-based artist and son of a Rimpoche (‘Living Buddha’) Kesang Lamdark is best recognised for his installation work with plastic sculptures, mirrors, lightboxes, and scavenged everyday objects; culminating in a playful exploration of his multicultural upbringing. His piece Dorge Drakkten and Kiss juxtaposes the traditionality of the formidable Buddhist oracle Dorge Drakkten, with a portrait of shock rock icon Gene Simmons — both with the identical gesture of tongues stuck out (a respectful greeting in traditional Tibetan culture). Kesang’s frequent use of melted plastic and acrylic — “modern and imperishable” items — calls to our age of plastic and commodification, and harnesses the preciousness of the mundane, while also providing a heavy contrast with his monastic lineage. Kesang describes his work as “neo-Tantric art” and continues to explore the liminality between East vs. West, Buddhist immortality vs. modern ephemerality, traditionalism vs. industrialisation, Rock and Roll culture, reincarnation, and death.
(This piece was originally commissioned for gal-dem.com)