Archive for July, 2008

I’ve been slow. Summer in Milan can have that effect as routines break down and everyone leaves for vacation. I actually finished my Chenrezig art quilt/thangka two weeks ago. Here it is:

Chenrezig art quilt thangka

Chenrezig art quilt thangka

This “thangka” is a unique combination of traditional and new, eastern and western techniques. I drew the figure of Chenrezig (that’s his Tibetan name. In Sanskrit, it’s Avalokiteshvara.) several years ago while studying thangka drawing in Sarnath, India with Alex Kocharov. Chenrezig embodies all the fully awakened compassion of the enlightened mind and is the deity closest to my heart. In China, he takes the feminine form of Kuan Yin. In Japan, he is Kannon. The Dalai Lama is a living manifestation of Chenrezig too.

I pieced this figure in the traditional Tibetan fashion, using pure silk satins and gold-patterned brocades from Varanasi. He’s seated on a deep blue and violet lotus, inspired by this traditional Tibetan poem found in Sogyal Rinpoche’s book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

Avalokiteshvara is like the moon
Whose cool light puts out the burning fires of samsara
In its rays the night-flowering lotus of compassion
Opens wide its petals.

After the figure was pieced, the nontraditional aspects of this thangka began to emerge. I suggested the nimbus of glowing light around the body with a transparent metallic-effect synthetic organza, machine stitched with radiating lines. I cut the head nimbus from a beautifully patterned cotton scarf remnant purchased from the Etro designer outlet in Milan, Italy. Chenrezig’s immediate background is a deep, variegated, blue of hand-dyed (not by me but by a woman near Munich in Germany) cotton sateen, quilted in a pattern echoing the outlines of the form. Surrounding this central block are six quilted blocks of cotton fabric from the US. I arranged these to form horizontal bands of color reminiscent of some of the oldest Tibetan applique thangkas where sky and ground are represented by three graduated horizontal bands. The six sections also imply the six realms of sentient beings — the forms in which we can take birth, or the reactive filters through which we can see our experience and react to it. Narrow strips of red and white cotton separate these blocks as Chenrezig’s bodhicitta permeates the worlds. The sun and moon are quilted in the dark sky above.

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In the last few years, Tibetan contemporary art has begun to receive significant attention. A small group of artists, some living in Tibet, others in exile, are finding opportunities to exhibit their work and are being recognized as an important force in the evolution and vitality of Tibetan culture. I have not yet had the good fortune of attending any of these contemporary Tibetan art exhibitions, but I am eager to do so.

The other day, a google alert for Tibetan art brought my attention to a fine article by Carole McGranahan and Losang Gyatso, speaking about the artists’ and scholars’ symposium Waves on the Turquoise Lake: Contemporary Expressions of Tibetan Art which took place in September, 2006.

I’m not Tibetan. I create traditional Tibetan art and am also expanding the boundaries of my work — both by applying traditional techniques to new imagery and by complementing my traditional images with new techniques. Up to now, even my “new” imagery is drawn from Tibetan and related cultures. So even though I’m not Tibetan, the questions of Tibetan contemporary art are very close to my heart.

Cultural preservation seems a worthwhile endeavor, especially when a particular culture is threatened and repressed and undergoing rapid, largely externally-driven change as is the case for the Tibetans. I am honored to play a part in preserving a precious Tibetan tradition — even if it’s not very traditional for a “foreigner” to be doing so. But I’m also aware that culture cannot be petrified and continue to live. The emphasis on preservation must be tempered by an openness to growth, change, evolution, life…

The article on Waves on the Turquoise Lake quotes Tsering Shakya asking “What is the Tibetanness of this?” as roundtable participants explored issues of contemporary Tibetan art in light of the pressures to conform which are found in the Tibetan exile community. “What is Tibetan about this art?” So far, most of the contemporary work I have seen by Tibetan artists is heavily influenced by traditional forms and symbols of Tibetan art and culture. One day in the future, perhaps, that will no longer be the case. At that point, will it matter whether one is a Tibetan contemporary artist or simply a contemporary artist? Or is there another way to express the Tibetan experience and struggle for identity, maybe in ways that are more universally human? For now, I am deeply moved by the use of these ancient symbols in the expression of current human, and particularly Tibetan, experience.

In some way I feel that all my own work is contemporary, even the traditional pieces, because it’s being produced now, in today’s world, where the images of tradition do not occupy the same space they once did. At the same time, I resonate with the tradition that’s contained even in my “contemporary” works, even if it’s not the tradition I was born into.

For more on contemporary Tibetan art, see also the Mechak Center for Contemporary Art.

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