By Tsering Namgyal
Contemporary Tibetan art scene took a leap forward last week as a major new exhibition dedicated solely to contemporary Tibetan art kicked off at a museum in New York.
For those who are used to mostly seeing religious art, the new exhibition offers a significant break away from tradition. There are art-works made of empty beer cans, stupas made of melted wax, a distorted image of the Buddha on Chinese passport, a map of Tibet with key historical dates inscribed on human back, to name a few.
In the work of Zurich-based artist Kelsang Lamdark, for instance, the iconic image of an American rock-star Gene Simmons was hung alongside the image of a ferocious-looking Tibetan deity with a protruding tongue.
They are anything but conventional. Not surprisingly, all art is political and self-immolation is a common motif shared by several of the artwork featured at the exhibition held at Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at State University of New York, New Paltz, nearly 90 miles from New York City.
Titled “Anonymous,” the exhibition is the second such show of contemporary Tibetan art ever held, following the “Tradition Transformed” held at Rubin Museum of Art in New York City in 2010.
“The exhibition includes a selection of work exploring issues of identity and Tibetan life both in traditional culture and in the present day,” said Rachel Weingeist, curator and senior advisor at the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, one of the key sponsors.
Many of them were sent in by artists inside Tibet. The photos and video arts from Tibet provide a “glimpse of oft-censored imagery and exemplify varied roles of self-expression in contemporary Tibetan culture,” she said.
Overall, the exhibit features nearly 50 works of art by at least 23 Tibetan artists from around the world. The artists include Ang Tsering Sherpa, Tenzin Rigdol, Sodhon, Palden Weinrab, Dedron, Pemba Wangdu, Gade, Nortse, Rabkar Wangchuk, Marie Dolma Chophel, Tsering Nyandak, Benchung, Tulku Jamyang, Losang Gyatso, Nortse, Sherab Gyaltsen, Tsewang Tashi, Ang Sang, Phurba Namgyal, Rabkar Tsering Nyandak, Kalsang Lamdark, Karma Phuntsok and Jhamsang.
While the works of those who resided in exile were easy to acquire, those who lived in Tibet had a hard time submitting their work, said curator Weingeist.
To protect the identity of the artists, two years ago the organizers made an “anonymous” video call and a website was produced in English, Tibetan and Chinese.
Organizers had to wait a long time for the submissions to reach them. It did not reach them until recently, most of them delivered by hand.
“The original aim was also to keep it anonymous so that people could express whatever they would like to say without restraint,” Weingeist said. “However, I was surprised that most people did not want to be anonymous. The 21st century Tibetans want to take credit for their work.“
Nearly 200 people showed up on the first day of the exhibition, which is held at the 9,000 square feet Dorsky Museum – which is as large as the Rubin Museum – at the State University of New York.
Seven Tibetan artists from India, Nepal, US, Switzerland and France were in person at the opening which was also attended by Donald Rubin, co-founder of the Rubin Museum of Art and an important patron of Tibetan and Himalayan art in the world.
Rubin, who made a fortune in healthcare network he founded with his wife, spoke on the importance of education in helping one develop a good instinct. He said it is his “heart connection” with the Himalayan art, which had made him one of the biggest champions and collectors of Tibetan art.
Europe-based curator David Elliott, for instance, writes in the show’s catalogue, about the challenges facing the contemporary Tibetan artists – violent political climate, heavy influence of Chinese culture, brainwashing from Beijing, and self-censorship –as they “search for a voice in the present.”
The works shown in the exhibition, Elliott writes, “embody the friction between the contemplative aesthetic of traditional art and the desperate need for new thought and action.”
One of the anonymous videos, for instance, include a 26-minute on video on Barkhor Street with the eye of the camera moving along the narrow streets and square of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and through the Tromzikhang market and when the night falls the presence of the armed Chinese military.
In several videos, Tibetan landscape – a main protagonist most work on Tibet – is often contrasted with the new Chinese construction, showing the transformation and shifting realities of the land under the Beijing’s rule.
The geographic diversity of the submitters represented is quite staggering, reflecting the scattered nature of the Tibetan diaspora itself. They come from Lhasa, Nashville (Tennessee), Thimpu (Bhutan), Zurich (Switzerland), Oakland (California), New York City, Washington DC, Kalimpong (India), and the Australian Outback.
“Contemporary art is the perfect platform for this process,” opines Elliott, “it builds on present realities, harms no one and may even prefigure real change for the better.”
Tsering Namgyal, a writer based in New York City, is the author most recently of The Tibetan Suitcase: A Novel.