Does proximity have anything to do with art’s blind spots? Around eight months ago, Tushar Jiwrajka, director of Mumbai’s Volte Art Gallery, began wondering why India has ignored artists from regions close to her. “We’ve seen Pakistani art in Indian galleries before, but how much do you see of Sri Lankan art, or Bangladeshi or Nepalese art?” he says. He began to envision a show of contemporary Tibetan art in India—a first for any major art gallery in the country.
“We really felt that contemporary Tibetan art is essential to India. It comes from a culture in India’s vicinity, and a political and social reality that is based here,” he says. His concerns resulted in Beyond the Mandala, a group exhibition that opens today and contributes to an important year of exhibitions for contemporary Tibetan art.
In June, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York hosted the first exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art in a New York City museum, Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond. In September, Beijing made way for Scorching Sun of Tibet at the Songzhuang Art Museum.
Fresh colours: (clockwise from left) Bollywood Buddha by Rigdol; Moksha Buy Mandala by Jenny Bhatt. Photographs courtesy Volte Art Gallery and Seven Art Ltd
Contemporary Tibetan art, produced both inside Tibet and by the diaspora, has been growing in scope and breadth over the last 20 years. While the thrust of Tibetan cultural expression in exile has been the preservation of tradition, increasingly, the contemporary strain in art is exploring current issues—personal, political and cultural—by integrating centuries-old traditional imagery, techniques and materials found in Tibetan Buddhist art with modern influences and media.
The attempts to present this to the world have been disparate, with boutique galleries such as The Sweet Tea House in London and the Mechak Center for Contemporary Tibetan Art, composed of Tibetan and American artists and academics, in the US, making some headway. Jiwrajka’s questions drive home the point that there hasn’t been a serious institutional effort to promote Tibetan art in India although the country hosts the largest number of Tibetan refugees.
Beyond the Mandala, that takes its name from mandala, or sacred Tibetan art, seeks to reorient the status quo by bringing to India works by four Tibetan artists: Gade, Tenzing Rigdol, Tsherin Sherpa and Palden Weinreb. Apart from one of Sherpa’s works, all the others will be on show for the first time anywhere in the world.
The show was made possible by the collaboration of the London-based gallery Rossi & Rossi, which specializes in classical and contemporary East Asian art (Rossi & Rossi was also behind the New York and Beijing shows). Fabio Rossi, the founder-owner, says, “India, with all sorts of past and present connections, is the natural place for Tibetan artists to thrive.”
This exhibition caps other efforts to promote Tibetan contemporary art in India. Tashi Gyatso, a Tibetan resident of Dharamsala, set up a social enterprise called Peak Art in April to accommodate the growing concerns of Tibetan contemporary artists in India. He and his American girlfriend Sarah Mac have curated four shows since.
Peak Art is dedicated to showing Dharamsala-based artists, and finding an adequate number of artists and artworks to display was an issue initially. With seven artists in its fold, the gallery is doing well now. “We sell 60% of the works to travellers from abroad,” says Mac, adding, “The majority of our art is affordable for now, our artists are relatively new names to patrons; in five-seven years, I expect that will change as their talent is discovered.”
As the only gallery in India with a programme solely devoted to contemporary Tibetan art, Peak Art has enjoyed witnessing the process of discovery. In October, they even travelled with one of their shows, Starving Artists, to Delhi.
Tibetan artists practising today are straddling two worlds with panache. Trained in the traditional arts, they’re moving towards a new idiom. Their works break the spiritual associations that non-Tibetans have, sometimes exclusively, of Tibetan art. One of the artists from Beyond the Mandala, Rigdol, for instance, studied traditional Tibetan sand painting and butter sculpture, even earning a degree in Tibetan traditional thangka painting. But his work energizes his precise technique and conventional aesthetic with references to mass culture and pop icons such as Bollywood stars.
Gade’s art is rooted in traditional Tibetan painting that he describes as “a language with which to express the suffering and the essence of the Tibetan people, and to draw a map of the Tibetan soul”. But he freely fuses this with globalized kitsch, such as Mickey Mouse figures. In his artist’s statement, he says he “removes the religious element” entirely. His works comment on changing priorities in an increasingly globalized Tibet, that Gade sometimes jokes about as “Lhasa Vegas”— a country radically distant from the mystical perfection of Shangri- la, a concept that has dogged perceptions of Tibet in the world outside. By contrast, Gade’s Coca-Cola-drinking, Disney-admiring Lhasa Vegas exists at the intersection of China’s Cultural Revolution and the hegemony of Western pop culture, a reality that complicates notions of the sacred and profane.
“These artists are getting greater visibility in the international circuit, both commercial and not,” Rossi says. Given their particular geographies, this is worth noting: Rigdol and Sherpa, born in Kathmandu, work in New York and California, respectively. Gade lives and works in his hometown Lhasa, but his works have been acquired by museums in China, the UK and US. Weinreb, also a New York resident, was born there.
Now, there is reason to believe that these artists are coming closer home. Lekha Poddar, a tastemaker in India’s art scene, has started collecting contemporary Tibetan art. Reha Sodhi, assistant curator at The Devi Art Foundation instituted by Poddar and her son Anupam, says that though the foundation hasn’t bought or exhibited any Tibetan artists yet, they’re actively researching the region.
New Delhi’s Seven Art gallery also opened a solo exhibition with Buddhist trappings yesterday. In MokshaShots (which runs till 4 April and has works priced between Rs30,000 and Rs4 lakh), artist Jenny Bhatt explores the consumerist myth that fulfilment of moksha can be found through the purchase of a product or an experience promised by it. Bhatt confesses that her cheeky works are inspired by the traditional thangka or mandala painting.
The title Beyond the Mandala makes one question if Tibetan art is truly moving “beyond” in a manner that warrants a reassessment. “My thought is that the mandala is still there, but it’s not everything any more,” says Martin Clist, director of Rossi & Rossi. The mandala stands for tradition, it is also one of the best-known symbols of Tibetan art. But, as Clist says, it is no longer a restriction.
Beyond the Mandala opens today and will run till 6 April at Volte Gallery, Colaba, Mumbai.