Nepali Times
Review
Big Macs and Mickey Maos


DANIEL B HABER


American cultural icons such as Mickey Mouse, Big Mac hamburgers and dollar signs are not the subjects that one would expect from painters from Tibet. But that is exactly what viewers saw at the 'Contemporary Paintings from Tibet' exhibit at the Siddhartha Art Gallery last week.

True, there were the usual Buddhas and Buddha eyes, stupas, yaks, Om mani padme hums and girls in (and out of) ethnic dress (some even showing bare bosoms). Much current Tibetan art depicts these stereotypical elements mostly in flat thangka styles. With a few exceptions, it is mostly airport art.

But for China-watchers and Tibetophiles, the most interesting and original works that stand out-at least from a sociological/anthropologic perspective-are the works of the new Tibetan pop artists, such as Gade, which can be gauged as a barometer of the new Tibet.

Having met Gade (pronounced Gah-day) in Lhasa at a 2004 Tibet University Art exhibition, where he is also a lecturer in art history, I easily recognised his tongue-in-cheek, playful homage to commercial cultural icons. Here at the Siddhartha was a good sampling of his work-painted monochromatic symbols on rough paper like oversized palm leaf manuscripts. Here, in a series of triptychs titled 'New Holy Book' the artist in mock seriousness spoofs the new icons of contemporary Tibet as part of the greater Chinese of the globalisation era.

The first panel depicts a typical Buddha head set in grids for thangka painters and is juxtaposed with a head of Mickey Mouse in similar thangka grids as the new god. The second panel depicts three food icons, a bowl of rice crossed by a pair of chopsticks (Chinese diet), a bag of tsampa (roasted barley, the Tibetan staple) and a Big Mac hamburger in the middle and in case you missed the symbolism, a golden double-arched 'M' over the burger.

The third panel depicts mahjong symbols, disembodied high-heeled legs of chorus girls and a bottle of whiskey in between. During the Dalai Lama's reign in Tibet, mahjong, considered a decadent waste of time, was outlawed in Tibet.

The 'New Holy Book' also includes a canvas that is a page out of someone's weekly planner, with entries such as 'Love at First Sigh&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#̵'216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;', 'First Kis&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#'&#̵'216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;216;', 'Party'. Also depicted are icons such as dollar signs, mobile phones, playing cards and cigarettes.

Many Tibet watchers (not only those in Dharamsala who see the developments in contemporary Tibet as cultural genocide) are concerned with the erosion of traditional Tibetan culture, particularly the Buddhism that was once its core. While political and social criticism may not be entertained in the TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) as in the rest of China, Pop artists like Gade can freely point to how mammon and Mickey Mouse have replaced traditional Buddhist symbols and values.

Visitors to Lhasa, especially those coming from Nepal, are usually struck by how developed and 'Chinese' the Tibetan capital appears. There is no dearth of entertainment, from discos in the shadow of the Potala, nightclubs, hotels, spas and restaurants, but one would be hard-pressed to go anywhere for a dharma talk. Ironically, while Buddhism is discouraged in Tibet itself, there is increasing interest in dharma in the mainland and in Hong Kong.

As Tibet becomes more consumer-oriented it is not surprising to find this trend reflected in contemporary art like Gade's work, which seems to question the get-rich-is-glorious concept. We asked Gade what he thought of Nepal. "I am very impressed by the preservation of the architectural heritage such as in Patan's Durbar Square," he replied.

Aside from the whimsical pop work of Gade, another artist of note is Awang Zaba, who is more versatile in his style. Although not a Pop artist, he does decorative modernistic canvases of ladies in Tibetan costumes meant for the tourist crowd but his Socialist Realism style in which he was obviously trained, is more noteworthy.

It is his canvas of a towering Zhou En-Lai looming over and namaste-ing a Nepali dancer in front of (and blocking) one of the Buddha eyes of a stupa that enigmatically greeted the visitors to the recent Siddhartha show. The artist says he painted it especially for Nepal audiences, although some observers might see it as ominously foreboding. Interestingly, the Siddhartha exhibition was part of the 50th Golden Jubilee of Nepal Chinese Diplomatic Relations and was inaugurated by the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Sun Heping.

Few people know the contemporary art of Tibet but the Siddhartha exhibition and Jim Aplington's Lotus Gallery in Thamel will help bring it more exposure.

Pic Caption: Chinese Ambassador Sun Heping and others look on as Sangita Thapa, proprietor of Siddhartha Art Gallery points out a painting of Zhou En-Lai namaste-ing a nepali girl by Awang Zaba.



LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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