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.

Transnational Art and the Beginning of an International Cultural Renaissance

Currently, I am finishing up my research with my latest articles and art catalogues. I also have plans to interview one more artist, Tenzing Rigdol, who is based in Queens, New York. I have begun writing the rough draft of my paper documenting the development, impact, and importance of contemporary Tibetan art. Additionally, I believe I have enough research to support my hypothesis of a Tibetan cultural renaissance. This flourishing of culture however is atypical in that it is occurring internationally and transnationally. Tibetan artists are creating contemporary visual displays incorporating both traditional Tibetan elements and other cultural influences from around the world.  Due to the political unrest in the Tibetan Autonomous Region under Chinese authority, Tibetans have sought refugee in Nepal, India, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, Australia, and France. Artists adopt the styles of their new home or have access to studying contemporary art, weaving international styles with Tibetan symbolism and creating a transnational art movement.

Not only are there artists working to comment and essentially create contemporary Tibetan culture, but writers, poets, and scholars are also challenging the boundaries of their reality. It is through this amalgamation of cultures that these Tibetans are reproducing their version of reality and most often, giving light to their individual and communal struggles. By continuously observing and displaying what is happening to the creator and their environment, there is a challenge to what their culture views as important. These artists are choosing to include what they believe holds value from their traditions and shared cultural identity in order to adapt to their globalized world. Through this combination of Tibetan ideals and external symbolism, a transnational art and culture is beginning to form.

I am very excited to begin analyzing the chosen artworks and dissect their meanings and symbolism. In order to create a succinct argument, I will have to pare down which artworks will be included in my final paper. My greatest challenge at the moment is choosing which works best exemplify the growing transnational art movement. I am also still working to develop more terminology to properly categorize each artwork and the artist’s style.

A Renaissance of Tibetan Art and Culture

In my research so far, I have made multiple visits to document and experience the “Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art” exhibit at SUNY New Paltz. I have also interviewed the contemporary Tibetan artist, Kesang Lamdark, as well as met artist Tenzing Rigdol and made plans to interview him in the future. I attended a curator-led gallery tour of the “Anonymous” show and a lecture over contemporary Tibetan Art, Culture, and Identity. My literature review is steadily growing as I continue to add sources and synopses. I’ve also had a review of the “Anonymous” exhibit published by an online contemporary art magazine: ArtExperienceNYC. Finally, I have drafted a detailed outline for the entire research paper and am developing my own terminology to better discuss the issues, symbols, and styles of contemporary Tibetan art and culture.

Through discussion and research, Dr. Lee and I have developed the hypothesis that there is a Renaissance of Tibetan art and culture in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Tibetan diaspora. There is an outpouring of contemporary art within the TAR and abroad, drawing on centuries of traditional Tibetan art and adapting it, fusing it, and creating something entirely new. The scope of style, subject matter, and theme differ between artists. The over-arching mission is instead a redefining of Tibetan culture by addressing what it means to be Tibetan in the 21st century. Three main themes occur within that redefinition: Identity, Culture Convergence, and Political Commentary. Due to the limited amount of research still within the contemporary Tibetan art field, my comparisons, conclusions, and new terminology will hopefully push for further scholarship and establish an understanding of Tibetan art as a means for cultural preservation, resurrection, and evolution.

I am still in the phase of my research where I feel like I am left with more questions than answers. For example, I am still trying to understand why there are only two established female Tibetan contemporary artists among a sea of male artists. Is there a cultural stigma against women artists? Were no Tibetan Buddhist nuns ever trained in the art of thangka painting? I’m also wondering if contemporary Tibetan art, particularly those that utilize Buddhist iconography, is still seen as blasphemous since they are not executed with the same pious rituals or in the proper style? These questions don’t daunt me but instead further my interest in the research to uncover the answers and flesh out my arguments further!

Contemporary Tibetan Art: A Unified Art Movement, Political Activism, or Something Else Entirely?

For my research project, I plan on discovering if the current outpouring of non-traditional art by Tibetans both within Tibet and abroad constitutes a unified art movement with similar goals and themes. I plan to collect research on a variety of contemporary Tibetan artists and categorize their work by their style, influences, materials, and overall mission. I will use articles, exhibition reviews, artists’ personal websites, first-hand accounts, as well as my own interpretations in order to understand, de-code, and relate each piece of art.

I’ve already begun my research with great success. For example, last weekend I traveled to SUNY New Paltz in order to see an exhibition currently on view at their art museum displaying a collection of contemporary Tibetan artists. I also had the pleasure to observe a talk by one of the artists, Kesang Lamdark, as well as personally interview him afterwards. His answers to my questions as well as the artist talks will provide fantastic primary resources to back up my conclusions. I was surprised to learn straight from his mouth that he has no problem with the commodification of Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism in the West. His own dichotomous background (an ethnic Tibetan who grew up in Switzerland) allows him to more readily reconcile with how these two distinct cultures interact. I perhaps should have realized just how globalized and metropolitan Lamdark was when he first pulled out his pack of “American Spirit” cigarettes.

I hope that I will be able to classify the entire collection of art as a unified contemporary Tibetan art movement. Many scholars before (though the field is still extremely small at this time) have tried to contrast contemporary Tibetan art with traditional Tibetan art as well as separate Tibetan artists working within Tibet from those Tibetan artists working in the diaspora. I hope to be able to bridge this gap with real evidence and comparisons. I will also be dissecting common themes that are often seen in contemporary Tibetan art, such as a focus on the influx state of Tibetan identity or political commentary of the Chinese government. By analyzing these themes, symbolic imagery, and artistic style, I hope to add to the scholastic knowledge of contemporary Tibetan art while also advancing its understanding, notoriety, and acceptance.