BUDDHISM, COLLECTIVES CONTEMPORARY ART TIBET OVERVIEW
The last couple of decades have seen an explosion of international interest in Tibetan contemporary art writes Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, assistant Professor of the University of Alabama in a column for Asia Art Archive.
A common theme of this art is religious iconography – including celestial beings, Buddhas, and ritual implements – being adapted to portray ideas of identity, cultural preservation, globalization, and tensions with the perceived colonizers – the Chinese immigrants that represent the control of the Chinese state.
The various collectives of Tibetan artists that exist both within the PRC and also abroad in exile have distinct philosophies regarding their art. However, all of them include artists who consciously use Buddhist themes and iconography to convey very different concepts of identity, cultural preservation and globalization.
Interestingly, some contemporary artists originally studied under a traditional Tibetan system of artisan apprenticeship (for example, Karma Phunstok) before becoming a ‘contemporary artist’, while others have chosen to do so as a means of developing their contemporary practice (for example, Gonkar Gyatso).
Certainly, many contemporary artists do not associate their work with Buddhism; some resist associations explicitly to avoid stereotypes of the Shangri-La image of Tibet, whereas others such as the prominent artist Gade (b. Lhasa, 1971) use Buddhist images in a playful way to explore contemporary issues in Tibet.
Others consciously identify their motivation in undertaking particular pieces as being connected to their Buddhist faith and practice. The artists mentioned below are individuals who use Buddhist terminology in describing their art, and cite their motivations as being similar to traditional artisans – as a form of meditation, or an offering.
Artist statements often deflect attempts to politicize their work through the incorporation of traditional forms of vocabulary. Despite growing up during the Cultural Revolution when religious was suppressed many artists strongly self-identify as Buddhist and depict this identity in their work.
Several different artistic collectives reflect some of the different motivations of contemporary Tibetan artists.
Sweet Tea House
Sweet Tea originally started in Lhasa in the late 1980s with the intention of portraying and exploring contemporary Tibetan life through art, though was short lived due to government interference. However, one of its members, Gonkar Gyatso (b. Lhasa, 1961) revived the name in 2003 when he opened a gallery in London.
Gongkar Gyatso portrays some of the ambivalence felt among Tibetan artists about the connection of Tibetan identity with Buddhism. In an interview, he discussed how in traditional Tibetan art as well as in Maoist ideology the ‘assertion of individualism … [is] outlawed.’ Gyatso’s incorporation in his work of Buddhist motifs and the body of the Buddha, in particular, is used as a signifer of Tibetan identity, as well as commenting on contemporary images and political images surrounding Tibet.
Disney Plus 3 (2004), for example, includes an image of the Buddha along with images of Mickey Mouse. Both of these images are instantly recognizable as cultural markers, but the depiction of them together subverts expectations of their traditional uses.
Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild
The Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild is based in Lhasa, and artists from the group often collaborate and exhibit in Gyatso’s Sweet Tea House gallery. One of its most prominent members, Gade, like Gyatso, has grown up without a traditional Buddhist education. His work is a commentary on contemporary Tibetan issues yet often incorporates traditional motifs. Railway Train (2006) is an example of a piece that depicts this contrast which includes images of traditional Tibet, such as monks and nomads, alongside Coca-cola signs and the train that dominates the landscape,
Mechak is a more recently formed initiative that encompasses other collectives through the use of the internet and by including artists from within the PRC as well as those in exile. The term ‘Mechak’ itself conveys the ideas of the group: me (me) meaning fire and chak (lcags) meaning iron refers to a traditional Tibetan iron-edged tool used for creating sparks. Mechak states that its mission is to ‘ignite a renewal of Tibetan culture’ through the inclusion of Tibetan artists from around the world. One of the group’s intentions is to explore new forms of expression while maintaining ‘a spiritual centre’. Indeed, many of the artists involved, including one of the founders, Losang Gyatso, use Buddhist imagery and themes.
Ang Sang (b. Lhasa, 1962) is one artist who incorporates traditional themes, particularly Buddhist ones, in his art for example in ‘White Tara’, a modern image of the goddess Tara. In his artist statement Ang declares that, ‘Painting to Ang Sang is the Buddha Nature in his heart; his works express faith and devotion. Through the exploration of the artistic language of Tibetan spirituality, he tries to find common characteristics between ancient and traditional Tibetan art and Western avant-garde art.’
Other young artists also incorporate Buddhist themes in their work, although their subject matter may not appear as explicitly to be Buddhist.
Palden Weinreb (b. 1982, ) born in and still living in New York City was educated in a western artistic tradition. His work incorporates mixed media and also refers to Buddhism. In his artist statement, he describes how, frustrated on one occasion, he began to recite mantra (symbols recited as a form of spiritual practice), reached a meditative state and found his pencil moving of its own accord. Fascinated by the results, Palden continued to use this method, explaining that through doing so, ‘I discovered a new sensibility in approach and aesthetics. I possessed a new appreciation for the illusion and deception held within a mark, creating ambiguous passages and environments … There was a beauty and a depth in the relation between systematic and unconscious patterns.’
Tibetan artists incorporate Buddhist motifs in their work for different reasons. Some reflexively use them as signifiers of ‘Tibetan-ness’; others as social or political commentaries. However, some artists have also consciously used them in a manner similar to traditional artists: as a form of spiritual practice.