By Tenzin Nio
The wall, as black as midnight and with painstakingly delicate gold details, foretold ancient wisdoms of the divine beings. Fierce looking wrathful deities rose out of their flames and wielded terrible weapons of destruction in their multiple hands, and their mouth curved in violent anger depicted sheer viciousness. I stood spellbound at the visual feast that existed before my eyes and felt transported into yet another realm of existence. Torn between my terrified mind which screamed to leave and my eyes that compelled to absorb, my love for art was birthed through these rich jolie-laid murals of Sakya monastery in Bylakupee, stealing one’s devotional time in secret from the colossal Buddha that sat at the altar.
Art has always proved a therapy for me. I grew up in a Tibetan settlement where the cultural norm dictated anyone who was academically able to pursue a career in either Engineering or Medicine. Delving into the Arts was vehemently frowned upon. To my utmost regret, my knowledge on Tibetan art is that one of vague and extremely limited. However, my passion for art in all its myriad forms, and my belief in its importance as a powerful medium of communication and archive is the sole purpose of this short article. After all, mythology and art provides the foundation for facts and cultures, and not least the Tibetan culture which is constructed entirely out of strong aesthetics.
Two years ago I paid a visit to the Sweet Tea House in London with my British Buddhist friend Laura, but my Tibetan friend refused to attend under the pretext of selling religion as sacrilege. Founded by Gongkar Gyatso, a much celebrated Tibetan artist, the humble art gallery featured numerous work by contemporary artists from both Tibet and the Diaspora. Observing the canvases of their inner most mind, I recalled the defining moment of the little boy enthralled by the elaborate murals in the monastery. This time I was staring at Buddhas compiled entirely out of hybrid collection of images that ranged from Mickey Mouse to bold Chinese texts and the late tragic Amy Winehouse. This paradigm represented to me the turmoil of what belonged to local and what was global, the clash between tradition and modernity, and the new versus old.
Though other avant-garde work, and yet distinctly Tibetan, by different artists depicted strong social and political messages without any hint of religious symbols, Buddhism exuded from every angle, shape and colour. Whether it was the obscure yaks that floated over the great grassland or the inner aggression of the cloth that constricted the mouth of a face, the representation of compassion, tolerance, attachment, suffering, and impermanence whispered through the strokes of paint brush that had been dipped in their soul. These artists have found their voices and offered alternative perspectives to the otherwise, and without being disrespectful, stagnant Tibetan art which solely served religious purposes. Most Tibetan artists are traditionally trained and are offered limited creative expansion. Gripped by the strict protocol preserved over centuries, every image is measured accordingly and every hand position or ‘mudra’ of Buddha has its specific meaning and convey the difference between his moment of enlightenment to his role as a teacher.
My afternoon at the gallery had reinvigorated my love for art and I found myself excited at the prospect of young Tibetans one day dominating and changing the face of the international art scene. Tibet and her people denote spirituality and political flash point to the world at large but we are not known for creative achievements. Buddhist art was never designed for personal expression, and paintings bore no signatures. For Buddhists, it is the subject and not the artist that endures so it was intriguing to find artist’s signatures prominently stamped on their work at the gallery. It was reflective of the modern times where Tibet’s visual culture was evolving into the context of 21st century, for better or for worse.
Some of the work poked fun at modern times, even when the artist engaged with contemporary concerns whilst others projected fascination with material and pop culture, which conjured flashes of my personal experiences within the Tibetan Diaspora. Images of monks driving Mercedes and nuns yakking away nonchalantly on i phones, and pretentious Tibetans conversing in English, having purportedly lost their mother tongue during their two years stint in oh so fabulous London came flooding in my consciousness.
These art imitated life and vice versa, and implied that the Tibetan agony is, in part, that of a medieval culture passing violently into the modern world. They were not just works of vanity and self cherishing but they served far more profound purposes. The artists were sensitive in all senses, emotions and intellect, and they represented us, the contemporary youth and interpreted our collective experiences as colonial subjects and expressed what we deeply felt. Above all, their work provoked and encouraged independent thinking.
I soon learnt that my friend who condemned the gallery, barely deciphered the symbols and the deities that festooned the walls of his flat. He had enshrined them simply because he was a Buddhist, which to me was not only ignorant but also a huge act of vanity and attachment the result of selective belief. It is inevitable that religious influences, iconographies, symbols and folklore’s will be infused in contemporary art because Buddhism pervades every aspect of Tibetan life. It is much more than a system of belief, it encompasses the entirety of our culture. Contemporary Tibetan art refers to the modern art of Tibet, or Tibet post the 1950 invasion. Just as politics can not be separated from Tibetan identity, Buddhism too has profoundly shaped our very consciousness.
If Buddhists condemn selling or “trivializing” art that bare religious influences as sacrilege, so too I believe is selling Buddhist books (which also comes from trees) or the vast amount of Buddhist centers that sell Buddhism to an extend. My grandmother tells me that the only wheel in constant use in Tibet was the prayer wheel which signified the motion of Dharma. Misusing the wheel is extremely sacrilege and yet in exile, she has accepted the changes of reality where the sacred wheel provides air conditioned mode of transport for even the most revered of Lamas.
Art is the representation of the inner-self and artists have played a key role in the cultural life of Tibet. Both traditional and modern artists demand respect, not condemnation. Like books need to be reviewed and rewritten every few years, I am a firm believer that traditions and faiths too need to be reviewed and reformed from time to time. The current emergence of contemporary Tibetan artists promises glimpse of exciting chapters in our future, impacting our society with their creative power to envision and offer new stimulating thoughts and emotions of ourselves and our changing world views. They are on the threshold of a new frontier. Are we ready to embrace them?