From the Sweet Tea House to an Artists Guild

From the Sweet Tea Houses to an Artists Guild: Reinventing Tradition in Contemporary Tibetan Art

Sara Oelrich Church

Presented at: Generations and Traditions: How Design Moves Forward

Third Annual Art History Graduate Student Symposium

16th November, 2012

In 2003, twelve young Tibetan artists established the Gedun Choephel Artists Guild in Lhasa.  The Guild convened as a cooperative namesake to Amdo Gendun Choephel (1903-1951), a prominent intellectual recognized as the progenitor of modern Tibetan art.  The task of defining modern Tibetan art today remains on contested grounds, as is evidenced by the disparate voices of Tibet scholars and Tibetan artists alike.  Shortly after the opening of the Guild, artist and co-founder Gade reflected; “So few people know the modern art of Tibet…Perhaps what the artist’s thinking about modern art in Tibet is just in their imagination—or maybe there is no modern art in Tibet.  But what is important is that artists are recording the transmigration of a civilization and a disappearing myth.”  Only recently has a small but growing community of scholars begun to interrogate this ‘disappearing myth’ that Gade and other Tibetan artists make reference to.  

As Donald Lopez explained in Prisoners of Shangri-la, Tibet itself has long been mythologized by Western discourse and fantasy, to the effect that we might “regard Tibet as a work of art, fashioned through exaggeration and selection into an ideal with little foundation in history.”  Adding further to this problem, some scholars and critics continue to conceive of modern Tibetan art as a ‘new’ phenomenon, as if it were somehow cut off from a more ‘traditional’ Tibet.  I argue that the Gedun Choephel Artists are integral to the ongoing invalidation of this ‘tradition versus modernity’ myth.  Here, I will demonstrate how contemporary artists of Tibet are not only recording ‘a disappearing myth’, but are actively causing its disappearance by reinventing their own relationships with tradition.  This reinvention is part of the legacy set forth nearly three decades earlier by a previous iteration of the Artists Guild, the Sweet Tea Artists.

As was often expressed to me during interviews with Tibetan artists and scholars in Lhasa over the summer of 2012, over-identification with a static concept of traditional Tibetan art may in fact serve to hinder the very survival of Tibet as something more than an exotic myth.  The Guild artists instead strive to move away from the singularities of both tradition and modernity to reside in what Homi Bhabha described as “the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—that the inter-subjective and collective experiences of nation-ness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated (in).”    

Beginning in Lhasa, I will briefly explain the status of tradition as it relates to the long-established practices of painting workshops, as well as the reactions against ethno-politicized concepts of tradition that emerged on the contemporary art scene there in the 1980’s.  Moving into the early 21st century, I will then trace the evolution of the Tibetan contemporary art scene into a more fully-integrated collective as embodied by the Gedun Choephel Artists Guild.  From there I will assess some current challenges and opportunities facing the contemporary artists of Lhasa today, examining the status of the Guild as a collective effort striving to move beyond the singularities of both tradition and modernity.

Perhaps the most widely recognized of what are characterized as traditional Tibetan art forms is the thang ka, a painted or appliquéd, portable silk scroll.  These objects, while highly intricate and aesthetically stimulating are not technically considered to be ‘art for art’s sake’ by most Tibetans, however.  The closest term the Tibetan language has for art, lha dri pa, encompasses a whole range of religious objects, the processes of their creation, and the makers themselves, as it translates literally “to draw a deity”.  The Tibetan thangka artist thus essentially ‘draws down’ deities with his work, acting as a sort of conduit between the deities and the patrons.  This is a vital role in the life of Buddhist culture, as a thangka may serve to remove obstacles, promote happiness, aid in prayer, visualization, or rituals, and gain karmic merit.  

In 1971, David and Janice Jackson spoke of their concern for recording the techniques and lineage of thangka painting, which they had at that time considered “a dying tradition.” Their concern was understandable, as Tibet at the time was still under the Maoist regime, and heavily suppressed in terms of religious and cultural practice.  However, four decades later the thangka is thriving due as much to the 1980’s liberalization of Sino-Tibetan policy as to the constant tourist market demands for traditional Tibetan artworks.  Today, dozens of thangka workshops can be encountered on any short walk through the Barkhor, a major pilgrimage and marketplace circuit in Lhasa.  One thangka artist I met with explained, “Although many young people now want to go to university and have more modern jobs, many still value tradition and want to work under me.”  He proceeded to explain that his own training in thangka painting began at fourteen, when he left his parents’ home to live in the workshop and study under other masters.  All the philosophical and mathematical precepts behind the iconometric design, or graphing of thangka compositions, were memorized by rote.  When I asked where he kept all the grids, the painter pointed at his head and smiled.  It took fifteen years of intense training before he was considered to be adept, and he now runs his own business and trains sixty young aspiring thangka painters.     

For this man, ‘tradition’ carries a positive connotation; as he put it “I am grateful to have a way to show the world what Tibetan Buddhism is.”  As he also explained, the tradition of thangka painting, properly executed under the guidance of numerous earlier generations, “gains merit for you and for the painter too.”  This view is in line with what the Dalai Lama refers to as “the outside landscapes” and “the inside landscapes” of Tibetan culture.  Artistic traditions such as thangka painting are in other words part of ‘an outer landscape’ or manifestation of Tibet, made visible to the wider world.  Yet the ‘inner landscape,’ the goal of sharing merit with all beings, is what matters most to both the thangka master and the Dalai Lama’s concept of the ‘landscapes’ of tradition.       

In contrast with the pride some associate with Tibetan tradition as outlined above, many Tibetan artists in the 1980’s and beyond have experienced a more complicated, even antagonistic relationship with the term ‘tradition’.  In 1985, Lhasa-born artist Gonkar Gyatso returned home after four years of studying Sino-Socialist Realism and European Modernism at the Minority School in Beijing.  Resuming his studies at Lhasa University, Gyatso frequently met with several other young artists in the local tea houses to debate the consequences traditionalism, post-Maoism, and the recent liberalization policies all held for the future of Tibetan art.  Expressing the views he said were shared by many young Tibetans at the time, Gyatso recounts; “All my attempts to get at my Tibetan identity and cultural roots…the result was a feeling of depression and emptiness, which I tried to depict…during these idle days of senseless arguments.”  During this time, Gyatso’s paintings were highly abstract; a pared-down sensibility consciously arrived at from the desire to find the essence of the “forms, shapes, elements…in our own environment”.  Yet despite the abstraction, some design precepts of thangka painting are still referenced in his early works.  “Cloud” (1980’s), for example, utilizes the long-codified techniques for outlining clouds in thangka backgrounds to a startling, almost optical illusory effect of repetitious lines and billowing shapes.         

In 1985, Gyatso established what became known as The Sweet Tea Artists Association.  The first independent artists collective of Tibet, Sweet Tea became a much-needed outlet for the young artists of Lhasa who, like Gyatso, struggled to redefine what it meant to be a Tibetan in the face of the government’s own definition of ‘traditional Tibet’.  This struggle was further emphasized by the fact that The Sweet Tea Artists were not formally trained in the techniques of Buddhist image making, such as thangka.  While Gyatso and others would later go on to more overtly reference thangka design elements and iconic religious imagery, the group was decidedly anti-traditionalist in aesthetics and philosophy.  Sweet Tea stood in stark contrast to what both the reformed Chinese government and the long-established Tibetan thangka workshops expected of the new Tibetan visuality.  “What, no thangka painting?” Gyatso recalls one Tibetan exclaiming at the sight of his work.          

Tsering Nyandak, another artist from Lhasa, also expressed a certain preoccupation with identity at the time.  When I asked Nyandak what his primary concerns were as an art student during the 1980’s, he explained; “I had no specific motive or movement in mind, but Sweet Tea had a strong sense of regionalism rather than nationalism.  The more open (governmental) policy encouraged Tibetan identity, even forcing local officials to wear traditional Tibetan dress.  So I was much more identity-oriented at that time…wanting to do things differently, always oriented to things as I experienced them in the present.”  The contrasting terms ‘encouragement’ and ‘force’ in Nyandak’s remarks are telling, as they relate not only to the Sino-Tibetan cultural preservation policies introduced in the 1980’s, but to the broader movement of a highly-romanticized, pastoralist ‘Tibetan’ painting style created and propagated by Han Chinese artists.  For Nyandak, expression of identity took root in the human form, but with a strong impulse to radically alter or strip away the religious and ethnic signifiers of traditional ‘Tibetan-ness’ preferred in painting at the time.  Nyandak’s Tibetans were frequently drunk, dressed in baseball caps, and riding bicycles—far from the bucolic peasant yak-herders who dominated the Han Chinese landscapes of Tibet.     

Another founding member of the Sweet Tea Association, Nortse began his artistic career as a stage set designer.  In his photographic series “Bound -up Scenery,” (1987, series of 4) Nortse enwraps his entire body in yards of white and red linen.  The first image shows the artist seated on two expanses of cloth, the lake and arid mountains of the Tibetan Plateau set behind him.  The following two photos depict Nortse upright and in the process of wrapping himself up.  The final image is of a completely enwrapped figure, with only the artist’s left hand visible.  The sky behind him has visibly deepened with the passage of time, yet the bandaged man is most prominent.  The artist has bandaged himself with the scenery, a remark on the indelible and sometimes painful links between artist, place, and identity.  As Nortse later explained, negotiating terms of self-expression as a Tibetan artist of the 1980’s resulted in the self-portraiture of “a human guinea pig, an ongoing experiment, a constantly experimented-on substance, continually being forced in and out of different test-tubes…the bound-up or hemmed-in imagery is not at all accidental”  This sense of being bound-up was to be shared by other members of Sweet Tea, as well.     

After a highly-publicized 1987 exhibition of the Sweet Tea Artists Association, the government demanded that Han Chinese artists be allowed to join the association and show with the group in the future.  This would have been in stark opposition to the mission of Sweet Tea, however.  As an independent association conceived from the need to transcend both culturally-predetermined and officially-sanctioned modes of depicting traditional Tibetan identity, Sweet Tea made the collective decision to disband rather than be infiltrated by the same artists they were reacting against. I’d argue that this maneuver was a powerful enactment of artistic agency in itself, what Bhabha refers to as an “articulation of difference …this process (that) estranges any immediate access to an originary identity or a received tradition.”

Years later, Gyatso, Nyandak, Nortse, and others have proven to be experts at maneuvering, although some might call it a process of trial and error.  As Gyatso reflected in 2008; “I remember when we set out the Sweet Tea Association we deliberately tried not to have the Chinese included and we got into trouble, so I think that’s the way that artists have to become more clever.  So I think today everything is that you have to learn how to maneuver around.  If you are maneuvering well, then you will survive.” For him, the 1990’s were a time of gradual artistic compromise between the ever-globalizing landscape of Tibet and the constant push/pull of what he called his “superficial” relationship to Tibetan Buddhism.  Beginning with a brief period of studying traditional thangka techniques in the early 1990’s, this transition crystallized in works like “Pokémon Buddha” (2004) and “Tibet Question” (2005), two compositions that utilize iconometric diagrams of the seated Buddha.  Today, Gyatso runs the Sweet Tea House Contemporary Tibetan Art Gallery in London, an international reiteration of the original Sweet Tea Artists Association.  

Meanwhile Nyandak, Nortse, and ten others who had remained in Lhasa reconvened to cofound the Gedun Choephel Artists Guild in 2003, the same year Gyatso opened the new Sweet Tea House.  As Nyandak explained, each of the twelve founding members contributed approximately 4,000 kuai to the initial start-up in order to procure the guild workspace and gallery.  For each commission made, 10% went to a maintenance fund and the other 90% to the artist.  The Artists Guild was founded under the initiative of what their brochure describes as “…shared experiences and common interests…drawing out originality and inspiration from the new multifaceted Tibet, which is far beyond the image of many outsiders.”  The brochure goes on to cite the guild members’ remembrances of the life and death of Mao, the “radical modernizing changes” of the 1980’s, and the “spirit” of their namesake as informative of their shared vision.

More notably, the new Artists Guild made two significant changes to the mission of their collective.  First, as the brochure points out, “we like to keep up with the times and trends, but we also respect and value the traditional aspects of our unique cultural heritage.”  Making the conscious decision to acknowledge the value of their “cultural heritage” in their publicity represents an evolution in terms of these contemporary artists’ relationships with traditional art.  Guild member Gade recalls the 1980’s and describes his new relationship with traditional art in this way; “When I look back, I see that I was looking at the Tibetan tradition and the contemporary like I was looking at mathematics, as some kind of formula…Slowly I learned to see that bringing things together was not like a formula.”  Instead of voicing an overt concern over their art appearing anti-traditionalist, the Guild artists have now chosen to relate to tradition in a new way, redefining it as they experience it in the present-tense.   

Nyandak expresses a similarly organic view towards the incorporation of traditional and modern aspects into his own artistic identity.  As the artist explained to me; “all art is equally valid if you’re sincere.  I have no views or comments to make with my art towards being either traditional or contemporary.  Actually, our artwork tends to be seen as conservative by most Tibetans.”  He then went on to discuss how in his experience, it is most often exiled Tibetans who seem to be upset over the contemporary reinvention of traditional motifs in art.  This is understandable, and may be attributed to the profound sense of cultural loss associated with exile, as Nyandak was also careful to acknowledge.  Yet the artist also recounts seeing “old pilgrims” visit the Gedun Choephel Gallery on the Barkhor, some kneeling and praying in front of contemporary works of his and his companions.  Such occurrences attest to the fluidity of Tibetan culture, and the ability—or necessity—of contemporary Tibetan art to constantly reinvent itself along with it.  

The second significant change made to the mission of the new Artists Guild is even more indicative of the need to ‘maneuver around’ and survive that Gyatso had described.  Of the twenty-seven current artist members of the Guild, twenty-four are Tibetan and three are Han Chinese.  Of those three Han artists, two have relocated to Lhasa while the third resides in Beijing.  When I asked Nyandak why the decision was made to allow Han Chinese artists into their Guild this time, he explained to me that it was more complicated than just the fear of getting shut down by the government again.  Nyandak does not see the Guild’s new policy towards non-Tibetan artists as a positive sign of globalization; rather it was a conscious choice made out of the shared necessity to survive.  As he stated;

“There is no ‘big Asia’ anymore.  More and more all of us artists must focus most on personal survival.  If we come together as a collective, we are all stronger, but there is more oversight.  This is good and bad.  The market in China is very good, yet not many buyers pay attention to Tibetan artists unless we are associated with Beijing artists too.  For artists who are not in the Guild, they are not in the game yet.  Chinese minorities, the Sikhs, the Muslims, there is a general attitude of a downward perspective.  They are kept exotic and traditional but are not on the same level.”

So, what is to become of the Gedun Choephel Artists’ future survival?  As of now, the Artists Guild has abandoned their central location on the Barkhor for a private workspace on an island in the southern reaches of Lhasa City.  As Nyandak expressed, the guild’s rapid growth necessitated a much larger workspace.  In addition, the floor-plan at the Barkhor location offered little over 250square feet of gallery space.  Currently, Guild artists show at the Art Rimo Tibetan Contemporary Fine Art Gallery in Lhasa.  While only a short walk away from the Barkhor, Art Rimo does not share the same visibility that the old site on the pilgrimage route once had.  While the former site was mere yards away from one of the most important Buddhist temples in Tibet, the Jokhang, Art Rimo is quite challenging to find, situated high up the stairway of an apartment complex down a busy side alley.  Yet as Nyandak explained, his Guild’s main motivation for leaving behind the Barkhor space was “to escape the tourist market’s vicious cycles.”  This remark in some ways reiterates the contemporary scene’s initial desire to reinvent and set itself apart from tradition, as the Barkhor markets are over-laden with thangka and other types of traditional Tibetan art expected by the majority of visitors to Lhasa.  

The next stage for the artists of the Guild is in itself an enactment of reinvention; by the end of 2013, the Artists Guild plans to be newly-located on a small compound to the west of Lhasa City.  These prospects are exciting to Nyandak, not just for the added space and privacy, but for the accommodation of a new artists’ residency program under development by the Artists Guild.  This residency program will take inspiration from modern residencies common throughout much of the world, as well as from the residential workshops in which generations of Tibetan thangka artists learned their trade.  Geared towards younger students, the program is meant to inspire a new generation of Tibetan and Chinese artists.  Hopefully this vision will come to encompass other Chinese ethnic minorities, as well.  As Nyandak explained, the emphasis will “not be so much about the outside buyers or visitors, not about the global economy, not concerned with whether people can even visit us very easily.  We want to expand, but to take our time, and continue to create new art.  For some of us, maybe this is an art movement.”  

If the future vision of Gedun Choephel Artists Guild may be taken as any indication, then it appears that the contemporary art of Tibet is not yet done reinventing tradition.  From the early abandonments of and experiments with traditional signifiers and the bold exclusion of non-Tibetan artists, to the more recent compromises with traditional motifs and the deliberate inclusion of Chinese artists, the Tibetan artist’s identity continues to survive just as it continues to radically evolve.  Through their careful maneuvering of relationships to both culturally-predetermined and officially-sanctioned modes of identity-making in the present, the contemporary artists of Tibet are dependent on neither mode.  Perhaps t is time that we abandon the mythic dichotomy of ‘tradition versus modernity’ for good.    




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