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Cultural tensions on display

Published on 21st April 2015

Contemporary Tibetan art exhibit explores changing attitudes
by Devin Blomquist

A massive painting on melted bubble wrap depicts American rock legend, Gene Simmons of Kiss, complete with proverbial white and black face paint and his signature facial expression. The painting hangs to the right of another painting on bubble wrap, this one depicting the manifestation of one of Tibet’s protector deities, Dorge Drakkten. The commonality between Simmons and Dorge Drakkten? A long, bright red tongue projecting from each of their mouths.

In the Buddhist faith, the oracle Dorge Drakkten will hiss, spit and stick out his tongue to transmit knowledge. Simmons is also recognized by that iconic crude facial expression. Kesang Lamdark’s “Dorge Drakkten and Kiss” explores questions of cultural context, as both use their tongue as a means of recognition but in completely different contexts, says Ariana Maki, religious studies and art history lecturer for the University of Colorado and local curator for Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art at the CU Art Museum.

Juxtaposing elements of traditional Tibetan Buddhist art with contemporary ideas surrounding culture, identity, self expression, place and the roles of tradition in a society faced with rapid globalization is a theme among some contemporary Tibetan artists. That theme is particularly visible in the artists’ work currently on display in Anonymous.

Yet, Tibetan Buddhist art has not always incorporated such forward-thinking practices. Some of the more traditional Tibetan art uses representational images to express abstract concepts of spiritual states of being. Much of the art of the Tibetan diaspora uses a kind of visual code to portray a variety of deities, protectors, guardians of the four cardinal points and other supernatural beings.

Often, private patrons commissioned artists to create these images for the transmission of Buddhism, and the artists themselves largely remained anonymous and rarely signed their work. The exhibit is titled Anonymous to pay homage to that tradition. But in an effort to reach toward a new and different future for Tibetan art, most of the pieces within the exhibit include a name card identifying the artist.

“To have this show here where the artists are named, for the most part, it’s enabling the artist to take agency and say, ‘You know these are the concerns that I have, and I am an artist, and I am engaged in the contemporary world,’” Maki says.

The artworks included in Anonymous reflect on the artists’ realities inside Tibet proper, as well as outside of Tibet, Maki says.

One of the Tibetan realities addressed in the exhibit are the invasions of Tibet by China and the departure of many Tibetans — laypeople and highranking traditional masters alike — beginning in the early ’50s and increasing in 1959, Maki says. In Nortse’s “Zen Meditation,” the installation incorporates six empty red robes as a reference to the lack of traditional Buddhist teachers left in Tibet.

Another piece of work in the exhibit that explores the contemporary issue of identity is Jhamsang’s “Mr. XXX,” a painting of a Tibetan passport. The identification photo has been replaced with the image of a robot and the last name is simply listed as “XXX.” With these details, Jhamsang explores the ways in which Chinese-issued identification conjures up a sense of disconnect between an individual’s passport and a sense of self, Maki says.

This is not the first time CU Boulder has been given the opportunity to put contemporary Tibetan artwork on display, Maki says. In 2006, the CU Art Museum hosted an exhibit called Waves on the Turquoise Lake, which may have been the first museum exhibition of contemporary expressions of Tibetan art in the United States.

“People flew in from all over the country to come in and just see it,” Maki says. “I hope that people who have seen contemporary Tibetan art before will be excited in the developments that have taken place since 2006. … I also hope that people who have never experienced it will be able to have, perhaps, their assumptions challenged, and their ideas broadened about what’s happening in Tibet and the diaspora.”

But most importantly, Maki says, she hopes people from the Himalayas, or at least those who have Himalayan family ancestry are able to see how larger questions of identity, place and meaning are being addressed by those familiar with the history of this ancient culture. Many expatriates from the region actually reside here in Boulder because the typography is very similar, Maki says, but, a vast interest in the Tibetan culture here also stems from Naropa University.

The Anonymous exhibit will be accompanied by a handful of free events that work to further an interest in Tibetan culture. One of which will feature contemporary Tibetan artist, Tsherin Sherpa, whose work is displayed in the Anonymous exhibit. Sherpa began his studies in Nepal and was an artist in residence with the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. His paintings specifically address cultural and economic changes as well as the identity and meanings of Buddhism.

Published in the February 19, 2015 edition of the Boulder Weekly