A groundbreaking museum exhibition features surprisingly candid artworks from a society in conflict and change
‘There are currently six million Tibetans still in Tibet,” says curator Rachel Perera Weingeist. “And we never get to hear from them—except through their art.”
Tibet, which has been occupied by China since 1951, is largely closed off from the Western world. Travel outside of the country is restricted and there are staunch limitations on its exports. To help make Tibetan art more accessible to American audiences, Weingeist conceived the show “Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art.” She invited Tibetan artists living all over the world to submit their work anonyously for the exhibition, believing that this option would allow artists to “express themselves without any repercussions.” When she began organizing the exhibition, however, she found that the opposite was true—despite possible consequences, all of the artists wanted to sign their work.
The resulting show is a candid depiction of modern Tibetan life and is one of the first museum exhibitions of contemporary Tibetan art to be presented in the United States. It features more than 50 works of sculpture, painting, mixed media, and video by 27 artists. “Anonymous” is on view at the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz through December 15 and will travel to the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont and the Queens Museum of Art in New York next year.
The majority of artworks in the exhibition are on loan from Shelley and Donald Rubin, who donated a vast collection of Himalayan art to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. They are also the founders of the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has conducted seminars on Tibetan literature and art, generated online art databases, and launched a campaign to compile comprehensive biographies of Tibetan Buddhist and Bon masters, among other projects. Weingeist is a senior advisor to the foundation, and has helped promote Tibetan art by bringing artists from that region to the Rubin’s artist-in-residency program in Vermont and organizing exhibitions such as this.
Much of “Anonymous” centers around the conflicts taking place between Tibetans and the Chinese government. Under Chinese rule, Tibetans have faced religious and cultural persecution. In fact, Tibetan names aren’t even recognized by the Chinese government—on official ID cards, names are replaced with titles such as “FNU,” for “First Name Unknown,” or simply “XXX.” Artist Jhamsang comments on this practice in his 2010 depiction of a Tibetan ID card, Mr. XXX. The personal information—sex, birth date, birthplace—is filled out, but the name just reads “XXX.” The photo portion of the card features the portrait of a futuristic-looking robot, suggesting that not only is this the present state of Tibet, but possibly the future as well.
In Vests (Orange and Purple), a 2008 piece by Zurich-based artist Kesang Lamdark, two glossy vests made of melted plastic hang side by side on the gallery wall. The use of this material is an allusion to the self-immolations that have taken place in recent years to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet. There have been approximately 120 of these demonstrations in the last four years alone.
Though the tone of exhibition is at times solemn, a sense of optimism and pride is present as well. Many artists here assert their hybrid identities through their work, blending Tibetan traditions with contemporary imagery. Another piece by Lamdark, for example, features a portrait of the Buddhist oracle Dorge Drakkten sticking out his tongue. This gesture is an ancient Tibetan greeting that is still used today. Lamdark juxtaposes that image with the portrait of another recognizable figure also known for sticking out his tongue—the rock musician Gene Simmons. The piece is titled Dorge Drakkten and Kiss (2012).
And in the painting Faces of Buddha (2011), artist Ang Sang riffs on the Tibetan artistic practice of iconometry, which involves drawing the Buddha using a precise template. Sang incorporates the iconometric grid and an outline of the Buddha into the canvas, but rather than depicting Buddha’s face, he filled the space with images of famous historical and fictional characters, including Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Barack Obama, and Che Guevara.
This remix of Eastern and Western traditions is perhaps best expressed in Rabkar Wangchuk’s 2013 painting Spiritual Mind and Modern Technology. Here, the Buddha is situated in a contemporary, metropolitan landscape. Below him are taxis, cars and buses; behind him is a silhouette of the Manhattan skyline; and above him is a clock. An apple replaces his topknot and tags reading “The Home Depot” and “Best Buy” hang from his stretched earlobes. The image is a reminder that it is possible to appreciate both past and present and to achieve harmony between two distinct cultures.