Tibetan Renaissance: The Internationalization of Contemporary Tibetan Art and Cultural Identity

My research led me from attempting to understand and define a relatively unknown art movement to arguing that the development of contemporary Tibetan art is a leading aspect of an international cultural renaissance. In fact, many artists embody the “renaissance man” in their skill and ability to work across different artistic fields. For example, Losang Gyasto is a contemporary artist who actively writes about the contemporary Tibetan art scene, as well as manages Mechak Gallery, an online database that compiles contemporary Tibetan artwork, exhibition information and articles on contemporary Tibetan art and culture. Tenzing Rigdol, a New York City-based contemporary Tibetan artist whom I had the pleasure of interviewing a few weeks ago, also works across the arts. He is a published poet in addition to being an internationally exhibited artist who now even has a work included in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While it is only one of two contemporary Tibetan artworks owned by the museum, it indicates that the major art world is starting to recognize the importance of this movement.

This focus on the revival, perseverance, and continuation of Tibetan culture is extremely atypical in that it is taking place without an autonomous state. In fact, the renaissance is global, focused not only from the Tibetan Autonomous Region but also emanating from the multiple Tibetan refugee communities in India, Nepal, Switzerland, the United States, France, Australia and other countries. The Tibetan Diaspora’s existence across a broad variety of nations is forcing the cultural convergence between their ethnic heritage and that of the host country. As the world becomes more globalized and dominantly westernized, artists are ultimately exploring how their traditional culture and Buddhist faith can interact with and adapt to aspects of consumerism, individuality, and postmodernity.

Ultimately, the Sino-Tibetan conflict is the unfortunate fuel for this outpouring of culture. Perhaps, if China had not invaded in 1950, Tibetans would still be happily carrying out their traditional way of life in their homeland. However, the Chinese invasion and oppression forced the Tibetan community to either flee or rebel. In the words of Rigdol, “all Tibetan contemporary art is in some way political.” The entire Tibetan people have been affected by the Chinese control of their homeland, either in their everyday life under direct government restrictions or by their necessity to relocate to foreign lands. However, by broadening the Tibetan culture to a more global perspective and celebrating the convergence of tradition and modernity, Tibetans can strengthen and adjust their contemporary identities. Through this framework, Tibetans can continue the legacy of their nation on a global level.

This project has challenged me both academically and personally. I had to do things out of my comfort zone, like travel to exhibitions upstate by myself and interview amazingly talented contemporary Tibetan artists. In addition, the sparse collection of research on this subject forced me to think more critically and independently about the subject matter and framework of the art movement and Tibetan culture. While I enjoyed the challenge, it can also be quite terrifying to be among the first writing about something in case you are simply proved wrong later. Though so far, I haven’t come across any research or writing to denounce my theory of a growing Tibetan cultural renaissance. And I believed I’ve finally decided on my official project title! Hopefully, my work will serve as a basis for many more students and scholars to begin their own research on the subject and reveal more insight into the fascinating contemporary Tibetan art movement and the increasingly internationalized Tibetan culture and identity.

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