Memory and Cultural Sustainability in Contemporary Tibetan Art

The Ethnic Minority of China’s Tibet
Buddhist Pasts
The Post-Cultural Revolution Subject
Leigh Miller Sangster

The ways in which outsiders recognise Tibet is vastly different from how Tibetans know and remember life there. Certain Tibetan contemporary artists in Lhasa now offer important self-representations of their religious, ethnic, and traumatic pasts and present. What might this memory work suggest for Tibetan cultural sustainability?

I am interested in illuminating individual and collective memory amongst 21st century urban Tibetan artists as they confirm, contest, and offer alternatives to the stereotypical images disseminated by the State and by romantic and commercial interests worldwide. The tides of popular opinion in both the West and in China over the past several centuries have alternately reviled and revered Tibet. Scholarship in Tibetan studies in the past decade has revealed that western socio-political contexts determined views of Tibet far more so than informed study of the country’s history and peoples. Nonetheless, the Shangri-la effect remains powerful in Western popular culture and, as in minority politics in China, can lead to representations of Tibetans as an isolated, pious, and timeless people to serve either romantic or paternalistic biases. Contemporary Tibetan art offers a startlingly different view of urban youth, globalisation, and the role of the past in the radically altered present.

Since 2003, painted, photographic and multimedia works by Nortse, Tsewang Tashi, Gade, and Tsering Nyandak have offered a new way of visually expressing connection to the Tibetan past and its impact in the present. I will discuss some of their work in relation to three lenses through which Tibet and Tibetan people are commonly seen: ethnicity, religion, and as politicised subjects in post-Cultural Revolution China.

The Ethnic Minority of China’s Tibet
The visibility (and invisibility) of ethnicity in works by Tsewang Tashi and Tsering Nyandak must be understood in light of the politics of minority representations in China and the new tourist industry, both of which now promote Tibetans as a pre-modern ethnic spectacle. In visual conventions for representing Tibet in China— from the Maoist Socialist Realism propaganda of oppressed serfs rising in revolution to post-Deng happy minorities in a socialist utopia— characteristic features are static, despite dramatic social changes. These visual strategies were superficial treatments of figures in traditional dress and exaggerated facial expressions and gestures, usually in unanimous groups of anonymous model citizens in rural locales engaged in pre-modern activities. They served a teleological function to make Communist rule appear natural, inevitable, and beneficial. Though not immediately discernable, the ubiquity of Socialist Realism and its legacy in minority representations over the past 50 years inevitably influences contemporary Tibetan art, which may be read as the assertion of a different view, if not also the rejection and contestation of orthodox representations.

The art of Tsewang Tashi and Tsering Nyandak illustrates struggle and engagement with the ethnic identities others have created for Tibetans in light of their own experiences of social change in Lhasa and the world.

Tsewang has worked from 2003-2011 on a series of portraits of Tibetan youth. As in Untitled No.3 (2006) and Untitled No.6 (2009) he photographed students on the Tibet University campus, altered the digital images with computer software, and then painted the subjects with jewel-toned skin and surface highlights. The colors, he notes, are not ‘natural’ for skin tones, but in the rapidly changing environment of urban Lhasa, the ‘artificial’ colors of neon and plastic, which used to be novel, have ‘become naturalised.’ [2] The highly individualised faces all wear inscrutable expressions and gaze directly at the viewer, demanding acknowledgment. Refusing to include elements that perpetuate Shangri-la fantasies of Tibet, Tsewang says often he pays attention to the contemporary realities of the people and environments around him [3]. 

Tsewang Tashi renders unique individuals with rich interior private lives who must negotiate their places within a rapidly changing society; they are not transparent affecting members of a pre-modern group with a clear destiny, as the State still insists, or the idyllic subjects of tourist souvenirs.

In recent years, feeling so-called traditional ethnographic elements in art was like a ‘façade’; Tsering Nyandak quite literally stripped his figures of cliché markers until he arrived at painting nudes[4]. Although his subjects do not wear traditional chupa or pose with mountains, yaks or monasteries, they still communicate a very personal and emotional statement that captures collective Tibetan experience today.

In Ladder No 2 (2007), a woman with a wounded leg enthusiastically runs towards a ladder, the top of which disappears into storm clouds; the viewer is left to question the wisdom of her aspirations. The bandage could have an autobiographical element, as Nyandak has faced and overcome feelings of limitations by his own polio-crippled leg. However, the ladder, a familiar local symbol painted on rocks to urge sentient beings’ reincarnation to ever higher states of rebirth, does not convey Buddhist concepts, but is a device to show the common feeling of ambiguity elicited by repeated experiences of hope and disillusionment. 
The 'discomfort' of the stooped and bent woman in Nyandak’s work, Woman at River (2006), whose oversized shoulder bears an invisible 'burden' [5], is compounded by the electrified braids, unsettling horizon line, and ominous sky, despite her placid expression. The balloon recalls the anticipation of a party, a happiness which is deflated afterwards. The chorten, a Buddhist reliquary structure, on the distant horizon is the only hint of her geographical location, but the bearing of an invisible burden while one’s behavior appears calm struck a deep chord with Tibetan viewers with whom I spoke.

The difficulty Tibetans face worldwide in transcending the assumption that cultural authenticity lays only in the past is further compounded in the PRC, where the State gains from images of the pre-modern Tibetan in post-liberation times. There, the visual markers of an imagined timeless ethnicity enable both the fantasy that nothing good was lost or destroyed in Tibet between the 1950s-1970s, and validate the political necessity of unending development of a people and place not yet caught up to the industrialised Han east. As so-called primitives have stood in relation to other colonial encounters and institutions, the Tibetan ethnic Other is primarily a pre-modern, naïve, exotic, and commoditised figment for Han majority nationalism, justifying colonialism, paternalism, and perennial development. To be ethnic in the PRC then is, problematically, to continue to possess characteristics that pre-date the communist revolution, and therefore modernity itself.

Tsewang Tashi and Tsering Nyandak’s subjects then occupy a new space, that of the modern Tibetan. Their portraits refuse mere dress as a marker of ethnicity and thus the historical narratives underlying the history of superficial sartorial representation of Tibetans. Their portraits implicitly challenge State narratives of past, present and future by reversing visual conventions for defining Tibetans, but without embracing satirical, nostalgic, or critical relationships to the past. They reject histories and myths that are not verified by the experience of Tibetans they have known. More importantly, their subjects are contemporaneous with this globalised present, in which their interiority cannot be erased, and may even be deeply affirmed. Tibetan contemporary artists are crafting a sustainable indigenous modernity rooted in a proud past, to carve out a space in the nation for their own culturally distinctive modernity.

Avowal of modern Tibetan identities, through assertions of pride, presence, and refraining from reiteration of Party narratives of their pasts and futures, achieves a synthesis of cultural identity and modernity, a crucial urban Tibetan identity that outsiders’ images of Tibetans have failed to successfully represent.

Buddhist Pasts
As a new generation of Tibetans define themselves in relation to the twenty-first century, what happens to the religious imagery that has for centuries dominated Tibetan society as well as outside perceptions of Tibet? Artists outside those of official art commissions and agencies are not immune from market influences, but do not use religious content as an expression of faith as much as outsiders might expect. Instead, Buddhist imagery has become a shared visual language adapted by artists to offer social commentary. While some utilise Buddhist symbolism and its timeless ethics to offer critique (of war, international antiques trade, or consumer society in Lhasa, for example), others use it as a placeholder for 'tradition' against which modernity may be juxtaposed. Gade borrows elements from Tibet’s religious art history - materials (cloth, stone ground pigments), styles, composition templates, and iconographic symbolism – to portray observations of contemporary Lhasan life. This merger conveys a deep sense of history while refraining from judgment; the current moment is simply and crucially embedded within a temporal, geographic, and cultural location.

The Hulk, an American cartoon and television character whose skin turns green and whose muscles swell to unbelievable proportions when overcome with righteous rage, is transformed by Gade’s brush to resemble a wrathful Tibetan deity in his painting The Hulk (2008). The painting adopts the traditional composition template for portraiture of a central divinity, bordered by a retinue and lineage of Buddhist lamas. Gade’s Hulk takes the wrathful form, accoutrements, and posture of Vajrapani, the Bodhisattva of power, depicted according to traditional iconography as blue, draped in a tiger skin, and standing in a wide-legged posture upon a lotus cushion trampling enemies underfoot in a raging fire blaze. 
Another popular composition genre in Tibetan Buddhist art hierarchically and ontologically classifies figures to illustrate generations of teachers and disciples in direct descent from a Buddha to one’s own teacher or an assembly of beings in which a Buddhist places faith. These assembly compositions are the structural basis of Father’s Nightmare and Mushroom Cloud No. 2 in which 'deities' such as Mickey Mouse Buddha, Spiderman Buddha, and Ronald McDonald Buddha and clusters of children, soldiers, bathers, and monsters cavort.

After religious culture was targeted for destruction by early Communist forces and its revival remains subject to restrictions, the memory of pre-1950 Buddhist society under the Dalai Lama’s theocracy easily becomes a benchmark for cultural authenticity today. After initial amusement, the discomfort some feel with Gade’s displacement of the sacred with the profane world is a measure of the pervasive anxieties about Tibet’s cultural and religious future. Yet the past cannot be re-created, and Gade imagines the reality of their collective experiences of a present into which traces of the past linger without the coherence they are once felt to have carried.

The shared visual language of Tibetan Buddhism can affirm deep connection to tradition on the one hand, and distance or alienation from it on the other. One painting, viewed from a distance, looks like a damaged temple wall painting, but upon close inspection reveals rows of Mickey Mouses in monastic robes seated in meditation posture. Gade intended the humorous surprise, but also explained that Mickey Mural shows the ‘growing distance’ between himself and religious traditions. He senses that he does not share ‘closeness with religion the way previous generations did’ and the gap is widening [6], as time’s passage is suggested in the work by fading and flaking paint. In Tibet however, art historical traditions are recollected through the still familiar forms and compositions to image tensions between continued cultural transmission and the often unclear relevance of tradition in current times.
Nonetheless, by way of materials, forms, styles, and compositions, Gade’s paintings ‘look Tibetan’ (a look defined by centuries-old Buddhist arts) despite the visibility of the second half of the 20th century and contemporary global trends in his paintings. Gade’s formal continuities with materials and compositions are crucial aesthetic choices for a generation with a strong cultural identity despite feelings of distance and loss. This serves to incontrovertibly establish his Tibetan identity and location through connection to art history and its legacy of a shared visual language that help to define a group’s collective and cultural memory.

Compositions and styles long associated with Tibetan Buddhism are a startling setting in which to discover Western pop culture icons such as The Hulk, Superman, and Mickey Mouse. Gade recasts the Buddhist pantheon to reflect (and poke fun at) current values that have displaced the centrality of Buddhism in society, while also recalling its former position. The viewer is forced to relinquish visions of a Tibet that only existed in the past and to acknowledge that Buddhas no longer solely dominate the visual culture; in fact, modern global culture is ubiquitous. He and his generation grew up with hybridity; they are comfortable with both tradition and modernity.

Gade’s strategies insist upon coevality by showing Tibetan mediation of dominant Chinese and Western culture and challenges to stereotypes; he does not necessarily import foreign and modern objects into his Tibetan context with their original meanings, but they acquire layers of meaning and values in the new contexts which he creates for them.

Gade is creating a bridge between past and future cultural landscapes in his choices. The lama lineage composition of Mushroom Cloud and Father’s Nightmare references Tibetans' 'deep and concrete sense of history.[7]'  The history Gade narrates with his paintbrush is both personal and collective, just as the lama lineage is fundamentally about continuity, connecting the present to the legitimating past, embodied through the teacher-disciple relationship. The function of the familiar compositions in Gade’s art convey and honor a living sense of history. The strategy may enable composition and material to perform the indexical element that creates an indigenous material trace from the past into the globalising present.

The Post-Cultural Revolution Subject
Nortse has developed a new approach to art making in Lhasa that explicitly focuses on personal and collective memories, despite the constrained parameters for representing the always politicised past within which contemporary Tibetan artists must work. In the context of curtailed expressions of memory, can Tibetan artists overcome limitations and even intervene in local silences and problematic representations of Tibetan pasts and present lives? 

The invasion of the People’s Liberation Army into Tibetan areas from 1951, the flight of the Dalai Lama and assumption of Communist control in 1959, and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 [8], arguably constitute one thirty year long trauma for Tibetans. Those Tibetans who survived find, at the start of the twenty-first century that their individual and collective relationships to the traumatic past continue to be politically dangerous to voice and moreover is secondary to the daily demands of navigating the ongoing structural violence of colonialism, racism, and poverty. Nortse is bravely looking back at this past and its enduring legacy. His visual strategies work at the intersections of private and public memory regarding disruptions to the transmission of personal and cultural inheritance and rapid, dramatic changes in Tibetan society. Ultimately, they trouble state and local myths of Tibetan life, as well as dimensions of memory theory, but may offer possibilities for transformation of difficult pasts.

Father’s Violin -1 (2007) is a large self-portrait in which the artist stands wearing a white face mask over his nose and mouth, posed as if to play a violin which has been wrapped in bright red fabric. During the Cultural Revolution, Nortse's father was assigned to a typical work unit for physical labor, but at the frequent political parades and meetings, he was conscripted to play nationalistic music on his violin. One day when Nortse was thirteen years old, his father's unit was kept late, working until after dark. Upon their return home to the city, the workers’ truck was involved in a serious traffic accident. Nortse's father was taken to the hospital with a head injury. When Nortse arrived, he saw his father wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, but he had already died.

The self-portrait confronts the painful recollection and the haunting of his life by the death of his father. In this self-portrait, Nortse stands at his current age in the center of the image, wearing a stiff and pressed Tibetan shirt, signaling through this cultural marker a disaster that is more than personal. The father’s blood-soaked bandages are transferred onto his violin, which has also died a death without a player. The violin is missing its strings and some tuning pegs, essential anatomy for the instrument's vocalisation. Nortse holds his father's violin in a posture as if he might play it, but to make music is impossible – the violin is broken, bandaged, and the son has no bow. The mask and absent bow the musician cannot wield evokes incomparable loss and silence.

The work entwines the past and present such that painful personal memories are conflated with the collective trauma of the Cultural Revolution. The year of the accident was 1976; Nortse was thirteen, and Mao Zedong would also die the same year, officially bringing the Cultural Revolution to an end. Compounding his personal loss, his father's death maps onto the larger chaos and meaningless destruction that transpired in Nortse’s childhood environment and across Tibet.

The face of the Red Guard in Childhood Memory (2008) is entirely wrapped in bright red fabric. Reading Childhood Memory autobiographically and in the context of the self-portrait series, the father/son wears the uniform of the brutal Red Guard and bandages, linking the personal loss of his bloodied father with the new nation’s father figure, Chairman Mao, whose ‘red’ Communists carried out the violent and nationalist campaigns. The mandala forms a halo effect and imitates the common contemporary appearance of irredeemably damaged temple murals. 

Nortse’s investigation of the past lingering into the present, for his personal life and in collective life around him, suggests that he could imaginatively transfer himself into that body – importantly a body which is both father/victim and perpetrator. While the original traumatic events to which this painting refers – the violence of the Cultural Revolution and the death of the artist’s father, symbolised by the uniform and bandages - transpired when Nortse was a youth decades prior, the faded mural and the matured adult are in the present. In Childhood Memory, the figure was (is) present at the Cultural Revolution’s destruction, and knows what will (has) happen(ed). 

Some scholars in the field of memory studies attend to specifically visual and creative memory work, the promise of which is a therapeutic or transformative outcome [9].  Following a series of works intensely investigating Tibetan traumas in personal and collective memory, a new theme emerged in Nortse’s self-portraits: liberation. Butterflies take flight around him in Release from Suffering (2007) and the recurrent motif of bindings – double symbols of wounds and restrictions – unwind and drape loosely over his forearms; they no longer constrain, blind, and mute the artist/son/child survivor. The titles of works in this subset reference the Buddhist practice of saving animals from imminent butchering and the Buddhist belief in liberation from samsara that is enlightenment. This image of transformation, rendered in both personal and cultural idioms, comes from examining personal and collective memories after decades of silence and denial.

The radical change of Tibet is felt as a memory crisis; connection to the past has to be constructed when previously, it is widely felt, cultural transmission was transparent and autonomous. Tibetan urgency to sustain cultural life and identity motivates the impulse towards the forms of imaginative investment at work in Nortse’s art. In the portrait series, Nortse literally images his present adult body in past settings. He thereby simultaneously registers the past and its lingering impact on the present by use of his own body. This displacement can be seen in Self-Portrait (2008), in which the authenticating brocade robe of precious religious statues that Nortse dons is fading and streaked, like the weather-worn murals of once thriving monasteries now falling into ruin. That which validates Tibetanness is increasingly slipping away on the one hand, while the impracticality and impossibility of a living person carrying the past, like a relic, on one’s shoulders is illustrated too. The child of the destructive period cannot make whole again his parents’ world, nor live without loss in his own.

Artistic memory work plumbs the relationship between personal, generational, and official pasts. The work is complicated and problematised in colonial and traumatic contexts when the past which is inaccessible and inassimilable becomes perceived as the last time there existed an authentic collective culture. The yearning for cultural inheritance fuels contemporary Tibetan explorations of the pre-Communist past. The trauma itself is still largely silent, passed over in search of what may be recovered, what should be retained, and how it should be transmitted; the inaccessible world is paradoxically and problematically felt to be at the root of Tibetan identity.

Tsewang Tashi, Tsering Nyandak, Gade, and Nortse face this challenge and work to forge a modern culture that validates their own experience and inheritance as 'Tibetan.' By asserting their presence, their coevality, history, emotions, and observations, they offer novel self-representations, a critical alternative to outsiders’ representations, and essential seeds of Tibetan cultural confidence and sustainability for the future. 

1. Leigh Miller Sangster worked with the artists in this essay and others in Lhasa in 2006-2007 funded by a Fulbright grant, but interpretations of the artworks remain her own and do not necessarily reflect the artists' aims.
2. Tsewang Tashi. Interview. June, 2004.
3. Tsewang Tashi, Interviews, 2006, 2007.
4. Tsering Nyandak, Interview, 2007.
5. Tsering Nyandak, Interview, 2006.
6. Gade. Interview, 2007.
7. Jackson, David. (1996). A History of Tibetan Painting. Wien: Verlag Der Osterreichischen Akademie Der Wissenschaffen.
8. The Cultural Revolution is officially dated 1966-1976, concluding with the death of Mao and imprisonment of the Gang of Four, but in Tibet, admission of political and policy failures and a significant political and administrative change did not occur until 1980 with the visit of Hu Yaobang to Lhasa.  
9. Gibbons, J. Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance,2007, New York and London: I.B. Tauris.
Hirsch, M. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, 1997, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, A. Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, 2002, London: Verso.
Saltzman, L. Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art, 2006, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors, or partners.

Leigh Miller Sangster has researched and been a curator of contemporary Tibetan art since 2003. She is a PhD candidate at Emory University and is the Director of Programs at Maitripa College (Portland, Oregon, USA) [1] .




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