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First Exhibition of Contemporary Tibetan Art in a New York City Museum
Pema Rinzin (1966 - ), Peace and Energy 1, 2009. Ground mineral pigments and gold on cloth, 41 x 61 in. Collection of the artist.

NEW YORK, NY.- There is no Tibetan equivalent for the word “art” as it is known in the West. The closest approximation is lha dri pa, literally, “to draw a deity.” Traditionally, neither the Tibetan language nor the Tibetan cultural framework has recognized art for art’s sake, and an artist’s efficacy rests in his ability to precisely replicate an established visual language and portray the essence of a particular deity.

This puts contemporary Tibetan artists in a precarious position. While their work is informed by Tibetan artistic traditions, the majority of these artists do not live in Tibet, and some never have. The contemporary Tibetan artist’s challenge, then, is two-fold: as he forges a name for himself in the competitive art world, he must also try to find his own place within Tibet’s rich and formalized artistic legacy. What does it mean to be a Tibetan artist who does not follow Tibetan artistic prescriptions?

Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond—the first exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art presented in a New York City museum—features nine artists who grapple with these very issues of cultural and artistic negotiation and who work with traditional forms in innovative ways.

Technology, travel, displacement, and personal artistic freedom have informed their individual responses to the complex interaction between tradition and modernity in both art and culture. The artists—Dedron, Gonkar Gyatso, Losang Gyatso, Kesang Lamdark, Tenzin Norbu, Tenzing Rigdol, Pema Rinzin, Tsherin Sherpa, and Penba Wangdu— were invited to submit new and recent works. Specific works by the same artists were then selected from private collections to complement these new pieces and highlight each artist’s range.

Of the nine artists, five were born in Tibet, three come from Nepal and one was born in India. Dedron, Tenzin Norbu and Penba Wangdu continue to live in their Himalayan homelands, while the others have emigrated to Europe and the United States at different stages in their lives. The majority of these artists are trained in traditional painting and the strict interpretations prescribed by Buddhist religion—spiritual formulas and artistic norms from which they break by experimenting with alternative media and by extracting sacred symbols from their religious context, repurposing them for self-expression.

Many of their works consistently juxtapose and merge the sacred with the profane. The large Buddha in Gonkar Gyatso’s L.A. Confidential (2007), is filled with tiny, disarmingly colorful stickers. Tibetologist Michael R. Sheehy, PhD notes that the conscious re-appropriation of the sacred visual form of the Buddha is a recurring theme in Gyatso’s work. Though born in Lhasa, Gyatso describes his life as “imbued with Chinese tradition,” a source of great frustration and disconnect from the cultural observations of previous generations of Tibetans. It is this cultural rift, Sheehy explains, that Gyatso explores in his art.

On the other hand, Dedron—the only woman featured in the exhibition and one of a handful of Tibetan women artists—says that her work is not a response to politics, but rather a means for raising awareness on behalf of women and animals. Using deep brown and gold pigments found in Tibet’s mineral-rich soil, Dedron’s work reflects her home and concerns—mountains, yaks, birds, nuns, clouds, women’s spheres, and a diminishing respect for the natural world.

“Fusionism” is the term artist Tenzing Rigdol uses to describe his work, and indeed it could well be applied to any of the works of art in the exhibition. Though this blending of styles and traditions is so often a result of oppression and displacement in the case of Tibet, many of the featured artworks seek to strike a balance between traditional Tibetan culture and those of the artists’ adopted homelands. The Buddha in Rigdol’s Excuse me Sir, Which Way is to My Home? (2008), for example, is cut from a roadmap of the United States. In place of temptations of the ego that traditionally appear in thangkas, Rigdol’s Buddha is surrounded by temptations of the modern variety: cologne bottles, cars, and iPhones.

Tsherin Sherpa, for one, makes a case for the value of transforming traditions. His Preservation Project #1 (2009) warns against the pitfalls of forced cultural preservation. It features the Buddha’s head and many hands in the shape of various mudras, all pressed against the inside of a glass jar. Sherpa describes this piece as an emotional one for him. Many in his generation, he says, have “not received a formal education on Buddhist philosophy.” They feel disconnected from “the true essence of Buddhist practice,” and Sherpa fears that these traditions may become “just a ritualistic tradition for some of us.” His painting is “an attempt to question and provoke all of us to check and see how we are actually preserving” traditions. For Sherpa and for many of these artists, Tibet’s traditions may be kept alive and relevant through their very transformations.

Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond is on view at the Rubin Museum of Art from June 11 – October 18, 2010.

Rubin Museum of Art | "Tradition Transformed" | Contemporary Tibetan Art |

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