Pokemon Buddha

Gonkar Gyatso’s ‘Pokemon Buddha’

‘Old Soul, New Art’, a ground-breaking exhibition which brings together the work of three prominent Tibetan exile artists, opens at the International Campaign for Tibet’s new office in Washington DC on Thursday (May 12). The opening night will include a silent auction, and there will be a round-table discussion with the artists and scholars on Saturday (14 May).

Tibetan painting is an emerging field of contemporary art and the work of artists in Tibet and in exile is attracting increasing interest in the West, as Beijing’s hardline policies against Tibetan religion and culture threaten creative expression and Tibet’s religious heritage. The exhibition, until 12 July, features the work of Gonkar Gyatso, based in the UK, Losang Gyatso, from Colorado, and Karma Phuntsok, from Australia. The exhibition also features two paintings by a young Tibetan artist from Washington DC, Tenzin Chopak.

All three artists grew up under Chinese rule in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and were taught to revere Mao Zedong and to despise the Dalai Lama in their childhood. Their work has involved a rediscovery of the distinctiveness of Tibetan culture, reinterpretations of traditional Buddhist iconography, and an exploration of their Tibetan identity in exile. Some of Gyatso’s well-known images of faceless Buddhas can be interpreted as representing the powerlessness of the Buddha whose teaching could not truly materialize in Chinese-run Tibet, and the absence of the key representative of the Buddha in Tibet, the Dalai Lama.

The artwork ranges from modern renderings of Buddhist deities (including Gonkar Gyatso’s “Pokemon Buddha”) to photographic prints exploring different facets of Tibetans’ cultural and political identity, to modern abstracts depicting the artists’ interpretation of the Tibetan soul.

This artwork is also of increasing interest for Chinese scholars and artists in China, as a new generation develops an interest in Tibet’s rich culture and new religious and secular expressions of Tibetan identity. Losang Gyatso, who draws inspiration from pre-Buddhist and Buddhist worldviews and symbols, says: “We want to contribute to the renaissance of an art that is modern and yet imbued with the power and spirit of the past. Through this, we are seeking to promote and cultivate Tibetan art that has the potential to ignite a renewal of Tibetan culture.”

The artists

Gonkar Gyatso, a London-based artist, trained in traditional Chinese calligraphy and landscape in China before founding a group of contemporary artists in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. Gyatso, who was the first Tibetan to paint a mural in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, grew up in an environment of Maoist ideology and imagery – his father was a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, and his mother a clerk in a government office. He says: “Everything in our home was Chinese and the entire family adhered to Party guidelines.” Gyatso first began to question the Chinese authorities’ dominance of Tibet when he visited a rural area on an official mission and was dismayed by the poverty among his fellow Tibetans as a result of government policies that demanded that Tibetan farmers donate their crop yield to the Chinese authorities. Gyatso later studied in Beijing and in Lhasa, and became more aware of the distinctiveness of his own “minority” heritage. In conversations with other art students, Gyatso had at first continued to defend Maoism, but gradually came to the realization that his personal crisis was shared by many other young Tibetans in Lhasa, who suffered from a sense of split personality as a result of reaching adulthood in a version of Tibet constructed by China. As a means of reinstating their Tibetan identity and rejecting the styles of Chinese masters, Gyatso founded the “Sweet Tea House” school of contemporary artists in Lhasa. In 1989, shocked by the crackdown in Lhasa after pro-independence protests and the Tiananmen Square massacres, Gyatso produced a series of fiery red seated Buddha images in which the basic colors were stained into cotton cloth and then drenched with further layers of black ink. Gyatso left Tibet for exile in 1992 and now has an art gallery in London, the Sweet Tea House Gallery.

Losang Gyatso is a Tibetan born artist who lives in Boulder, Colorado whose work explores Tibetan culture and identity. He engages with the intersection of the spiritual and physical, drawing inspiration from pre-Buddhist and Buddhist worldviews and symbols such as those in the Shang Shung rock art of Tibet. Losang Gyatso’s work interprets such core and abstract concepts of Tibetan culture as “inter-connectedness”. He says: “It’s the emotional content of an idea that shape my paintings more than memory and visual observations”.

Karma Phuntsok was born in 1952 in Lhasa, and escaped with his family into exile following the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959. Karma Phuntsok studied drawing and painting in other schools and later began an apprenticeship with a master thangka painter, learning the discipline of painting images of Buddhist deities. The images are focal points for meditation. Karma Phuntsok moved to Australia in 1981 and his work today reflects the inspiration he has received from the Australian landscape and Australian art, as well as an increasing interest in the lives of the Tibetan masters Guru Rinpoche and Milarepa. Karma lives in the bush north of Kyogle with his wife and son and his paintings are collected worldwide.

Note to press: The artists are available for interview
Contact: Kate Saunders, Director of Communications, ICT
Tel: 1 202 785 1515, email: kates@savetibet.org

Events and exhibition

The exhibition is open from 12 May until 12 July 2005 at the office of the International Campaign for Tibet, a new cultural and diplomatic center for the Tibet movement in exile, at 1825 Jefferson Place NW, Washington DC (two blocks south of Dupont Circle, between Connecticut Ave and 19th Street).

Opening reception with artists
Thursday, May 12 2005
5.30 – 8 pm (Q and A with artists at 6.30 pm)
Silent auction fundraiser on select artworks

Artists and Scholars roundtable discussion
Saturday May 14 2005
Moderator, Dr Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado)
3.00 pm Unexpected Lineages: From traditional to contemporary Tibetan Art
Panelists: Gonkar Gyatso (artist); Losang Gyatso (artist); Kathryn Selig Brown (the Rubin Museum); Tamar Scoggin (MS Museum Studies, Univ. of Colorado)

4.00 pm Art and Politics: Artists transforming Tibetan futures
Panelists: Gonkar Gyatso, Losang Gyatso, Kate Saunders (Communications Director, ICT), Tenzin Tethong (The Missing Peace International Art Project), Tseten Wangchuk (Tibetan journalist)

6.00 – 7.00 pm Reception and Open Gallery with Artists
(Those unable to attend the discussions are welcome to the reception)