Tibetan artists speak for themselves
By Kyle MacMillan
Denver Post art critic
Tibetan artists speak for themselves|While the words "oppressed country" and "chic" don't typically belong in
the same sentence, it seems safe to say that the Tibetan cause remains as fashionable as any in the world.
After all, how many other international issues have been worthy of a Richard Gere outburst at the Academy
Awards that remains notorious more than a decade after it happened?
Instead of Westerners raising their voices in protest, however sincere, an exhibition running through Oct. 20
at the CU Art Museum offers a refreshing alternative: It gives Tibetans an opportunity to speak for themselves.
Evocatively titled "Waves on the Turquoise Lake: Contemporary Expressions of Tibetan Art," it brings
together works by 17 artists who live in exile or reside in what is known euphemistically in China as the "Tibetan
Autonomous Region." The presentation, curated by Lisa Tamiris Becker, director of the CU Art Museum, and
Tamar Victoria Scoggin,
curator of the Mechak Center for Contemporary Tibetan Art in Boulder, is billed as the first major museum
exhibition to bring together works by artists working in and outside Tibet.
Because of the country's rich cultural history, any mention of Tibetan art typically conjures a vision of centuries-old
objects. While it is evident upon reflection that artists must still be at work there, the notion of Tibetan
contemporary art seems a surprising and strange notion.
Raising that fog of obscurity and bringing this little-known work more into the mainstream is precisely the point of
this important exhibition, which was accompanied Sept. 30 by a symposium that brought together key artists and
scholars from around the world.
Some of the selections seem stale, but most exude a freshness that derives from fascinating reinterpretations
of Tibetan art history and unexpected fusions with other styles.
Many of these artists explore the multiplicity of changes that have overtaken Tibet, from political upheavals dating
to the emergence of Mao Tse-Tung in 1949 to the contradictory conveniences and environmental challenges
arising from encroaching modernity.
No artist more creatively addresses these issues than Gade, who resides in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Painting
on long, narrow sheets of handmade paper echoing the shape of Tibetan scripture books, he rethinks the traditional
Tibetan landscape in "New Tibet" (2006).
Displaying extraordinary technical mastery and maintaining a kind of folk aesthetic, Gade fancifully mixes fiction and
reality, as he cohesively interweaves a futuristic view of Lhasa, including skyscrapers, a bullet train and even a space
port, with glimpses of its past and present.
In a second piece, "Nirvana" (2006), created in the same format, he channels Andy Warhol as he comments, among
other things, on the co-opting of Buddha by popular culture. Gade places Mao in a reclining Buddhist pose in the
middle of a gridwork of repeated images of a meditating Mickey Mouse.
In his playful 'Buddha @ hotmail' (2006), Gonkar Gyatso of London is even more direct in his look at the place of
Buddha in international popular culture. He creates a kind collaged Buddhist silhouette, using stickers depicting
everything from Marge Simpson to Hello Kitty.
The Tibetan diaspora has inevitably led to cultural intersections, none more intriguing and beautiful than the unlikely
fusion of Tibetan thangka painting and central desert aboriginal painting by Karma Phuntsok of Kyogle, Australia.
This merger can best be seen in "Vajra" (no date), a spectacular pattern painting in which Phuntsok has appropriated
the dotting that is so much a part of aboriginal art. He overlays colorful evocations of the Tibetan vajra symbol onto
a field of carefully arrayed gold dots.
Tibet's extraordinary artistic past will always loom large, but the country's contemporary artists are making a solid
claim on the present as well.
Note: In order that we might publish this article, a single negative reference to one piece of artwork as been omitted.
I beg the author's indulgence and understanding. The circle of Tibetan artists and the Tibetan community itself
being small and interconnected, would have made the edited sentence far more acute than in a larger society.