unexpected lineages

Unexpected Lineages: From Traditional to Contemporary Tibetan Art

By Tamar Scoggin, curator ofOld Soul, New Art


Mechak's inaugural exhibition, Old Soul, New Art: The Works of Three Contemporary Tibetan

Artists, not only commemorates a new lineage in Tibetan artistic expression, it celebrates the

art work of self-determination and self-realization, art work that in its cultural complexity and

personal profundity finds meaning in us all.

Exhibitions on the art of Tibet usually focus on works created from the tenth to the mid-twentieth

centuries. From religious scroll paintings called thangkas, to iconic sculptures, to many ritual and folk

objects, these artistic works of classical Tibetan Buddhist culture are collected and appreciated by

audiences the world over.

If we look deeper into the history and present condition of Tibetan art and society, however, we

find that this popular version Tibetan art is but a part of the history and definition of "Tibetan art."

From prehistoric rock art of the Zhangzhung Kingdom, to the contemporary art featured in the

exhibition, Old Soul, New Art, Tibetan art can be seen as old as two millennia and as conceptually

challenging as the postmodern art work emerging from the Western art galleries today.

Tibetan art not only operates in a changing historic and social context, but in a multicultural context

too. Classical Tibetan art has been recognized as a blend of influences from India, Nepal, Central Asia,

Mongolia, and China, resulting in "a tradition so distinctive and vibrant that it came to influence the

arts of other cultures." In the past fifty years, however, artistic influences from other cultures have

been perceived as highly problematic to the point of exclusion from what constitutes legitimate

"Tibetan art."

While this exhibition does not feature any works that highlight the Socialist Realism movement that

occurred in Tibet at the onset of Chinese communist rule in 1959, this movement is nevertheless

an important chapter in the history of Tibetan art. If overlooked, our understanding of the history

of Tibetan art ignores the social and cultural issues that contemporary Tibetan artists confront in

their work today.

Perhaps less salient, but similarly irreconcilable to the existing definition of "Tibetan art", is the

influence that American, Australian, British, Japanese, and Indian cultural aesthetics have had on

Tibetan art in the past fifty years. These influences have primarily arrived through living in exile and

the exposure to non-Tibetan societies. Rather than distancing themselves from tradition and their

Tibetan identity, Tibetan artists working in this multicultural intersection are re-establishing links

between tradition and modernity. Tibetan artists are not only reinventing Tibetan artistic expression

through experiments with new materials, techniques and compositional styles, they are also

rediscovering elements of Tibetan history and art that have been overlooked by recent historical

events. As such, they are speaking for a generation of Tibetans who explore cultural hybridity as

an alternative to cultural isolation, integration and engagement with the world instead of a

separation of self and society.


Unexpected Lineages: A Timeline of Tibetan Art

~1000 BC Images representing the culture of the Shang Sung Kingdom are carved onto rock faces

~600 AD Buddhism is introduced to the Tibetan empire of kings through contact with Buddhist

cultures in Central Asia, India, Nepal, and China

~900 Second diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet, signals the beginning of a classical era in Tibetan

Buddhist art and culture

Circa 1930 Famed artist Gendun Choephel trains at Shantineketan University, India

1959 Tibet comes under the rule of the People's Republic of China, the classical era in Tibetan

Buddhist art and culture comes to a close

~1960-1969 The first major exhibitions of Tibetan art in the West take place at the Asia Society

and Riverside Museum in New York


1966-1976 The Cultural Revolution, a campaign to further reform Chinese socialist society, results

in the proliferation of Chinese Socialist Realism art work


1977 Era of Liberalization begins in China and Tibet, Tibetans sent to train in art schools in Beijing

encounter less Socialist Realism training and more exposure to Western artistic traditions


1985 The first ever Tibetan-run artists association, called "The Sweet Tea House Artists Association"

is founded in Lhasa, Tibet by Gonkar Gyatso and four other artists; their mission is to create and

exhibit art work that is a return to their diminished Tibetan roots; they disband after government

intervention requires them to incorporate artists outside their mission


1990-1991 The "International Year of Tibet" is commemorated by the exhibition Wisdom and

Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet


1993 The first exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art by Gonkar Gyatso is held in Dharamsala,

India to commemorate His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's 65th birthday


1999 A second exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art by Karma Phuntsok is held at the Namgyal

Monastery in Dharamsala, India; titled "Continuum" it is the first exhibition by a Tibetan artist

trained exclusively in exile


2000 Tibetan artists, including contemporary artist, Pekar, are featured at the Smithsonian Folklife



2003 Gonkar Gyatso opens "The Sweet Tea House Contemporary Tibetan Art Gallery" in London,

England, featuring exhibitions from artists working both inside and outside Tibet


2004 Artists from the Gedun Choephel Artists Guild, a cooperative of contemporary Tibetan artists

working in Lhasa, Tibet, exhibit for the first time in America in New Jersey and Santa Fe;

Mechak Center for Contemporary Tibetan Art is founded by Losang Gyatso in Boulder, Colorado


2005 The first ever group exhibition of contemporary Tibetan artists working in exile, titled "Old Soul,

New Art," opens at Tibet House in New York City