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The New Face of Tibet

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Saturday, Jul 27, 2013
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Contemporary Tibetan art in recent times has begun to receive great attention from museums and collectors worldwide. This new development marks a very special and exciting movement within the already established, rich lineage of Tibetan art history that spans thousands of years. Careful scrutiny, however, reveals that Tibet in the past has been subjected to various stereotypes, some self-inflicted whilst many others mushroomed from the relentless Chinese propaganda that began in 1959. As a consequence, Tibetans somehow lost their intrinsic voice.

The recent manifestation of contemporary Tibetan art, however, has rejuvenated the displaced voice—conceptually personal at its core, yet intertwined within the experience of being a Tibetan in this post-postmodern world. Amongst the field’s many artists, Tenzing Rigdol is, without a doubt, one of the leading avant-garde, producing many exciting, complex and thought-provoking artworks.

Rigdol was born in 1982 in Nepal, to a Tibetan refugee family. His late father Norbu Wangdu and mother Dolma Tsering had fled Tibet for India in the late 1960s, when Tibet was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. His parents later got married and settled in Nepal. Rigdol’s mother worked as a carpet designer at one of the city’s biggest carpet companies, Norsang Carpet Industry, and his father ran a small carpet manufacturing company. At a very young age, Rigdol would draw and paint at his mother’s studio. In an interview, his mother recalls, “My son was a very mischievous and curious kid, only blank papers and colours could tame him…” Under the tutelage of his mother, Rigdol, at a very young age, began to receive commissions for carpet designs.


When he was ten years old and attending a boarding school in India, he would often use his spare time to draw beautiful carpet patterns. His father would hand him a number of prestamped postal envelopes with the family’s address in Nepal printed on it so that Rigdol could mail his recent designs back home. Rigdol’s mother notes, “For auspiciousness, we took the money that we got from selling the first lot of Rigdol’s carpet designs and bought a small altar”. This young boy who quietly drew and painted in his mother’s studio brought Tibet into the headlines of the world’s major media outlets when, in October 2011, he brought 20,000 kilograms of soil from Tibet into the second Tibetan capital, Dharmashala, India, for the site-specific art installation called Our Land, Our People.

This unique and awe-inspiring work gave Tibetans, who had long been separated from their homeland, a chance to touch, feel and experience the very soil of Tibet. This bit of earth transformed into a stage: monks prayed, poets recited their poems, dancers danced, activists gave speeches and elders offered their prayers in tears. The artwork also opened the door to new ideas for artists both inside and outside of Tibet. According to Rigdol, his late father was the inspiration for the installation; it was his way of both finding profound closure to his father’s early demise at the age of 64 from cancer and providing a personal tribute to the elder generation of Tibetans as a whole.

Recently, at the World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression, held in Norway, titled, ‘All That Is Banned Is Desired,’ Rigdol spoke about his individualised approach to his artworks and how the majority of them are connected to Tibetan history. In his soft voice, he said, “When it comes to art, I am a very selfish person. I try to be as selfish as possible, and in doing so, I try to dig out that very self that defines me. But to my humble realization, I find that self to be inseparable from the history of Tibet…” For him, this statement is consequently related to what he often calls being ‘honest’. For any artist, Rigdol considers it essential to be honest about one’s own experience, and when an artwork is traced to its conceptual origins, he says, it should land on the experience of the artist.

The new body of work created during 2012 for this solo exhibition, his second at Rossi & Rossi, reiterates and expresses, without any reservations, the ongoing experience of being Tibetan. Many of the artworks in this exhibition not only engage the history and politics of Tibet but also deal head-on with the self-immolations that are happening in Tibet right now. A triptych of a reclining Buddha, titled Alone, Exhausted and Waiting, immediately arrests the viewer’s attention. This silk-brocade collage depicts the body of a reclining Buddha consumed by fire, with tongues of flames painfully rising upward, signifying the current state of Tibet. The three pieces come together as one unifying force, and hint at the unified voice of the three Tibetan provinces (chol-ka-gsum). From a distant, the artwork appears like a quiet and lone mountain against the backdrop of a scripture-filled sky. Though majestic in grace, attire and size, the placement of an empty begging bowl next to the pillow reminds one the countless homeless at the streets of India and Nepal.


In another collage work, titled Journey of My Teacher, the image of Gautama Buddha is found covered in carefully selected pages of the book, My Land and My People (1962), an autobiography of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Here, the artist transforms the traditional image of Gautama Buddha into a narrative stage, accounting major historical events of Tibet that corresponds to the life of present Dalai Lama. There are some clever interplay of traditional iconographies with Tibet’s political events. For instance, On the Buddha’s Bhumi-sparsh mudra (the Earth Witnessing Gesture) one could read the events on China’s invasion of Tibet. On the right foot one could read about the Dalai Lama’s Exile into India.

The use of traditional Buddhist deities as an ‘open stage’ to express what’s on the artist’s mind, is one unifying characteristic element found in all of Rigdol’s collage and pastel artworks. In Autonomy, he depicts the tantric deities in an esoteric union with the male figure covered in Chinese currency, and a female figure covered in Tibetan currency, commenting on the adoption of the Genuine Autonomy policy by the Tibetan Government in Exile. He approaches collage mandalas in the same manner. For instance, in Heroes of Our Time, he frivolously plays with the idea of colourful fictional superheroes displacing the real-life, black-and-white character. Fictional characters, such as Superman, Iron Man, Batman and The Incredible Hulk, occupy the sacred inner sanctuary of the mandala, leaving the black-and-white portraits of the Dalai Lama circling around them. The artist uses the linear forms of the traditional artwork but completely changes the details of it, resulting in artworks with a strong, traditional accent that speak of contemporary issues. When asked about his use of traditional Tibetan deities in his artworks, Rigdol says, “Tonpa is one of the most popular names for an enlightened being, such as Buddha and so forth. The word etymologically means to show or one who shows…therefore, I use the Buddhist figures to express and show my feelings”.


Another exquisite and meticulously painted work of art is The Brief History of Tibet. The initial sketch of the ten-foot-long painting was done in the year 2000 but he couldn’t gather enough time and courage to execute the painting; but then in 2003 he finally decided to work on the painting and completed it after about nine months. The painting confidently marks the early phase of Rigdol’s artistic departure from the very strict, traditional mode of Tibetan art to a very new form. The painting simultaneously preserves and breaks away from the Tibetan tradition. It exhibits an extremely mature and complex composition. To witness his command over colour, one needs to stand before the painting and be engulfed by it. In the work, he reinterprets and reevaluates the traditional Tibetan iconographies and motifs, and contemporises them to express his very inner anger, fear and despair.

To a Tibetan such as me, the work clearly expresses the existential lingering between the past and the present, East and West. The distorted and suspended mirror-like mandala is entrapped by the crowning mountains and the stripped protector deity, Palden Lhamo. Here, the deity is depicted without her traditional sword, which immediately invites many questions. Rigdol reluctantly explains the imagery, “This is a Avalokiteshvara mandala or, in Tibetan, a Chenrezig mandala, and…in Tibetan Buddhism, it represents all the Dalai Lamas. However, in this painting, I am dealing with the fourteenth Dalai Lama. I am expressing my anxiety over the thought of not having the current fourteenth Dalai Lama amongst us and wondering what will happen to our Tibetan struggle under such crisis. Therefore, at the center of the mandala, I have shown the usual lotus base, but bereft of the crowning deity or his attribution, instead showing just two footprints”.

In 2000, when Rigdol first drafted the sketch for this painting, His Holiness was only sixty-five years old. At the time, almost no one in Tibetan society was debating what would happen to the Tibet issue after His Holiness’s passing. Witnessing the question asked in the painting at such a young age of eighteen startled me in a very profound way.

In most of his artworks, Rigdol incorporates references from traditional Tibetan art, particularly from the rich Tibetan Buddhist paintings. His artworks are the result of meticulous research in the field of Tibetan traditional art, wherein he attempts to discover the very Tibetan-ness in the great pool of traditional art. He then reinterprets and reevaluates all the formal elements of Tibetan Buddhist paintings that are specifically relevant to him and his time.


Traditional Tibetan Buddhist art could be seen as being influenced by an influx of artistic ideas, shifting from those of India and Nepal (Newar) to the later, dominant China. The postures, ornaments and dresses of the deities in the traditional paintings are derived from Indian art, the painting methods and decorative patterns come from Nepalese art, and the landscapes and sceneries are influenced by Chinese art. Hence, in most of his artworks, Rigdol completely removes the landscape (the Chinese influence) and replaces it with Tibetan scripture. When asked about the scripture in his art, he said, “The significance of scripture in my work has more to do with its distinct script. Though there are many different Tibetan dialects, there is only one unifying Tibetan script that binds all Tibetans together. So I consciously remove the landscape, whereby I remove the Chinese influence and replace it with our Tibetan scripture”.

Apart from being a prolific artist, Rigdol is also a published poet. Yet his approach to a subject matter doesn’t adhere to any single method. He is a multidisciplinary artist. His art practice ranges from painting, collage, sculpture and digital art to performance, poetry and film. At times, he crossbreeds these various methods to realise his vision. During my first visit to his studio for an interview, he was working on a collection of poetry for a painting. He said, “I want to make a painting about the ongoing self-immolation by Tibetans in- and outside of Tibet. I am composing one poem to every single brave soul who has self-immolated in Tibet”. At that moment, he was working on the following poem:
I couldn’t smoke a cigarette
I couldn’t burn the incense
Butter-lamp intimidates me
Matchsticks frighten me
Dear Lobsang Lobzin la,
For how long will you
In silence,
Smile at my futile indulgence?

When asked about his diverse art practice, he ponders for a while, and says, “When one thinks of oneself as a hammer, one would start seeing everything as nails. This limits one’s approach to seeing his surrounding at their fullest potential, and for me, art is all about possibilities…limitless possibilities”.

As I near the end of this essay, I want to share something that a prominent Tibetan scholar, Puma Bhum, once said to me on a train from New Jersey to New York. We were talking about Rigdol’s art and his soil installation, and abruptly, in his contemplative voice, the scholar said, “If only we had fifty individuals like Tenzing Rigdol, Tibet would have no problem leaping forward into the future”. In a few short years, Rigdol has become the face of contemporary Tibetan art.

(Note: This piece was originally published on Rossi & Rossi’s Catalogue “Darkness into Beauty” in 2013)

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