TRANSFORMING TRADITIONS - Contemporary Tibetan art and its political predicaments

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By Ananya Vajpeyi in Tibet
  • Published 7.11.13

For the past year, a continuing trend of self-immolation among Tibetan people both inside and outside Tibet has led to a great deal of soul-searching within the Tibetan community in exile. The most recent spate of self-immolations began in Tibet on February 27, 2009, when a young monk called Tapey set himself on fire at the Kirti monastery in Ngaba town (Sichuan province). To date, the number of self-immolations has reportedly crossed 120 inside Tibet, and includes monks, nuns and laypersons, young and old, men and women alike.

A new book addressing the issue of self-immolation by the Tibetan dissident blogger, Tsering Woeser, with cover art by the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, Immolations in Tibet: The Shame of the World, was released in a French language first edition in mid-October. The fact that Tibetans continue to kill themselves in this terrible gesture of political resistance against the Chinese occupation of Tibet has produced alarm and distress among activists and observers the world over. Alas, so far it has not precipitated any noticeable change in China’s official policy towards the Tibetan region and its people.

While policymakers in the Tibetan community in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh (the seat of the Tibetan government in exile), non-profit groups like the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington DC, and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and his office all continue to try to create a dialogue with the Chinese government, important responses to the phenomenon of self-immolation have come from Tibetan writers, poets and painters.

Some of these intellectuals and artists who are doing the hard work of documenting, critiquing and interpreting this difficult act reside in the Tibetan homeland, while others have long been part of the Tibetan diaspora in India and the West. An exhibition titled “Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art”, running from July to December this year at the Samuel Dorsky Museum in New Paltz, a small university town in upstate New York, brings together powerful works by Tibetan artists, many of which reflect on self-immolation and on the larger context of occupation.

Tibet has a centuries-old tradition of religious iconography, best known through the Tibetan thangka. Buddhas, Taras, bodhisattvas, siddhas, yogis, and a variety of Tibetan tantric and protective deities, as well as mantras, mystical syllables, formulae and prayers, long represented through a complex system of visualization whose exponents may still be found in Tibet and India. Anthropomorphic figures, elements from the natural world, and more abstract ideas like states of consciousness, meditative awareness and spiritual realization, are all depicted through a set of highly stylized and systematized conventions. Thangka painting has evolved a number of distinct schools over time.

But this type of representational practice is not, properly speaking, “art”, in the sense that it cannot be conceived or executed apart from Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and its modes of making meaning. There is a constitutive relationship between Buddhist texts and the images we see in a thangka: the two participate in a common symbolic order. Like Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, Buddhism — and not just in its Tibetan recension — has been over the ages the source of a vast universe of visual, sculptural and architectural forms, of which the thangka is the one that we most readily associate with Tibet. And as has happened in all major traditional cultures, Tibet’s sacred imagery has become unmoored from its earth in religion, drifting steadily towards what we may call “art”.

Contemporary Tibetan art must deal with these two mutually contradictory legacies: on the one hand, the immediate political context of Chinese occupation, and on the other hand, a living tradition of visual representation that has its roots in religion. These two factors are at once a burden, a weight under which Tibetan artists totter, whether they like it or not; and at the same time, contrarily, the very conditions that warrant and enable the production of an innovative art for our times.

An additional complication is that China’s presence in Tibet has the effect of attenuating the Buddhism (as well as the older, indigenous “Bon” faith) that defined Tibetan polity, society and culture for well over a millennium, and of thus rendering traditional forms of aesthetic practice increasingly precarious under the current colonial regime. Disenchantment has been the precursor of modern art everywhere — not least in communist China — but Tibetans find themselves arriving at modernity in their art through a particularly twisted path, beset by both physical violence and historical delay.

In Lhasa, there is now a generation or more of Tibetan artists some of who received their training in Chinese art academies, who make art alongside and in conversation with Chinese artists, teach in Chinese universities, show in Chinese museums and galleries. Perhaps by force of circumstance, they have had to move beyond a kind of preliminary angst about tradition and modernity, religious iconography and secular art-forms, as well as other sorts of shearing dilemmas that continue to beset their compatriots in exile.

But more than Tibetan artists living in societies like India, Britain, America and Australia, where there is freedom of expression and the exposure to a varied and vibrant international art scene, those in the mother country have to find ways to convey the repression they experience on the ground, and capture the realities of loss, violation, claustrophobia and erasure that have marred the encounter of Tibetan society with Chinese society ever since the 1930s, but especially since the 1950s.

The destruction of monasteries, universities, shrines and libraries, together with figurines and images of the Buddha and hundreds of thousands of ancient Buddhist manuscripts; the razing of original buildings and old quarters in Tibetans towns and cities; the Disneyfication of local culture for the consumption of Han Chinese tourists and settlers; the evisceration and extermination of traditional ways of life together with their built environments; the theft, flight and scattering of artefacts into the international art market either for profit or for safekeeping — these constitute the surround in which artists still living inside Tibet make pragmatic decisions about what to depict and how.

In fact, before we pass judgment on what these artists can show in their work, we have to think hard about what they actually get to see, for themselves, in the first place. In an atmosphere of propaganda and denial, it is possible that younger Tibetans grow up without any proper sense of their own religious, aesthetic, and cultural antecedents.

The thangka of yore was not signed by its maker, but was typically painted on cloth and could be rolled and carried from place to place. This mobility built into this form of iconography has given it a peculiar resilience: unlike more monumental objects of prayer, concentration or veneration, it is easily removed, hidden or sent away from danger. In conditions of occupation and exile, the portability of the thangka has inadvertently become a metaphor for the essential qualities that any Tibetan art, traditional or modern, has to cultivate and hold on to.

A form that can move is so much harder to exterminate. A form that is old and has seen innovation, invention and transformation in the earlier stages of its history is also more likely to survive political upheavals: a tree with deep roots will stand many a storm. Perhaps this is the reason that an organization like the Norbulingka Institute in Dhar-amshala provides training and employment to Tibetans (and non-Tibetans) in thangka making and other types of traditional arts and crafts that may or may not continue to exist under occupation.

Major Tibetan artists like Losang Gyatso, Gonkar Gyatso, Karma Phuntsok, Dedron, Nortse, Benchung, Tsewang Tashi, Kesang Lamdark, Gade, Tsering Sherpa and Tenzing Rigdol are now names recognized in art capitals like London, Zurich and New York, with gallery representation, museum exhibits, group shows as well as dedicated audiences, collectors, and scholars associated with their oeuvre. Installation art, photography and new media experimentation are also emerging in the Tibetan milieu.

Like Ethiopian contemporary art, Tibetan art today is acquiring a niche as a type of new-yet-old art, interesting to global buyers as much for political as for formal reasons. Orientalist habits of fascination for “Tibet” and “Ethiopia” — more imaginary, idealized countries than actual places with tortured histories — are partially responsible for the attention that art from these cultural zones is increasingly able to garner in Euro-America.

Yet the repeated occurrence of self-immolation, the relentless refashioning of Tibet’s urban and rural environments according to a Chinese-driven model of ‘development’ and ‘modernization’, and the gradual disappearance of the refined, esoteric, recondite and laborious forms of spiritual and artistic practice that characterized classical Tibetan civilization, mean that contemporary artists in and from this beleaguered land must continue the struggle to find, retain and strengthen their cultural selfhood through the work they make. In art perhaps there lies a form of freedom that still eludes Tibetans in politics.