Being “Anonymous”: Rachel Perera Weingeist on Tibetan contemporary art – curator interview

Curator Rachel Perera Weingeist talks about the “Anonymous” Tibetan artists.

“Anonymous”, an exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art, is on view at the Fleming Museum of Art in Vermont, United States, until 22 June 2014. Curator Rachel Perera Weingeist talks to Art Radar about her work with the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection, the concepts of the exhibition and the state of contemporary Tibetan art today.

  Rabkar Wangchuk, 'Spiritual Mind and Modern Technology', 2013, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 78 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Rabkar Wangchuk, ‘Spiritual Mind and Modern Technology’, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 78 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Anonymous” is an exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art, currently at the Fleming Museum of Art in Vermont until 22 June 2014. The exhibition originated at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, at the State University of New York at New Paltz where it ran from June to December 2013, and then moved to the Fleming early this year. Next, it will travel to the Queens Museum in New York City from 21 September 2014 to 4 January 2015.

Curated by Rachel Perera Weingeist and largely drawn from The Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection where Weingeist is Curator and Senior Advisor, the exhibition features 27 contemporary Tibetan artists, including established and emerging names. The majority of the artworks on show were made expressly for the exhibition.

Art from Tibet: “Self-expression”

“Anonymous” is, according to the press release, an “exploration of changing attitudes towards self-expression, attribution, and identity in contemporary Tibetan art.” Traditionally, Tibetan art did not put much emphasis on artistic self-expression or individuality. Art was a means of transmitting Tibetan religious culture and was unattributed: artists remained anonymous. This attitude towards art and artists is in deep contrast with the western and the global art world, where individuality and making a name are of utmost importance. Within the new social reality of Tibet as part of China, art is increasingly seen as a vital medium of self-expression.

Tibetan artists are increasingly focused on their personal experiences and are creating individual artistic languages that use irony, metaphor and allusion to communicate their views. The exhibition presents a range of artistic styles and perspectives by artists from the diaspora, as well as, those who are still living in Tibet.

The participating artists come from around the globe, including Dharamsala, Kathmandu, Lhasa, New York City, Oakland, Thimphu, Zurich and the Australian Outback. The artists in the exhibition include:

Art Radar spoke to curator Weingeist about The Shelley and Donald Rubin Collection, the Rubin Museum of Art, the exhibition “Anonymous” and contemporary Tibetan artists.

  Benchung, 'Ascetic', 2012, acrylic on canvas, 47 1/4 x 31 1/2 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Benchung, ‘Ascetic’, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 47.25 x 31.5 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Could you tell us about your experience since you started working for the Rubin Collection?

I started working for the Rubins eight years ago, and that was my introduction to the region [Tibet]. My background was in contemporary Western art before that. At this point, the Rubins had primarily a traditional collection. The Rubin Museum of Art, a non-profit cultural institution founded by Shelley and Donald Rubin but separate from their private collection, had been open for about one year when we started to form the Contemporary Collection privately.

It was quite a unique introduction, with my education having nothing to do with Tibet. It was quite formal in the contemporary sense: we provided office space for Gene Smith and the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre (TBRC) for about five and a half or six years. So really Tibet came to me, here in the office. We also provide office space for Jeff Watt, who is the founding curator of Himalayan Art Resources, so I had a lot of traffic through the office with very traditional resources, highly developed networks and a lot of scholarship. From day one, when the contemporary Tibetan works started to come in, presented by either the artists themselves or by Fabio Rossi and Edward Wilkinson, I was able to ask one of the most famous Tibetan scholars about what I was working on. And I had the perspective of somebody who knows the traditions in-depth for decades, who spoke and read all of the languages. So I really came up with different perspectives than I have with other bodies of the collection, which has primarily contemporary Indian and Cuban art. The contemporary Cuban art is the most quickly growing collection.

  Tsewang Tashi, 'Shangri-La No.1', 2008, digital photograph, 59.1 x 39.8. in. Image courtesy the artist.

Tsewang Tashi, ‘Shangri-La No.1′, 2008, digital photograph, 59.1 x 39.8. in. Image courtesy the artist.

“Anonymous” is the second exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art that you have curated in the United States. Could you briefly tell us about the first one, “Tradition Transformed” – what the show was about and the artists that participated in it?

Tradition Transformed” (PDF download) was the very first show of contemporary Tibetan art at the Rubin Museum, which was exciting in itself and it was also the largest contemporary Tibetan art exhibition to date. “Scorching Sun” in Beijing came right after that, so it was obviously in process at the same time.

I decided to work with about eight artists that were in the Rubin’s private collection. I asked them through invitation to respond to the theme of “Tradition Transformed” that allowed them – not me as a curator – to have the strongest voice. I wanted them to respond to this theme however they saw fit; the responses were varied and it was quite open for their interpretation.

The artists were working in many different styles, from Tenzin Norbu who comes from Nepal to Kesang Lamdark who lived in Zurich, so there was a very wide range. But they all had traditional skills and were using them in innovative ways. I was most interested in the artists who had traditional skills that they acquired in the monastery or through apprenticeship with master thangka painters.

It was June 2010 when “Tradition Transformed” opened at the Rubin Museum, and it travelled to Dartmouth to the Hood Museum, to the Crow Collection and then to Dallas. There was actually a general survey of Contemporary Tibetan art in Atlanta before “Tradition Transformed”, at Mr. Rubin’s alma mater. It was when the collection was just forming, and there was no overall theme beyond contemporary Tibet, and the wall text was sort of one-off labels where we examined the works individually rather than stringing them together with a larger curatorial thread.

Marie-Dolma Chophel, 'Winter', 2013, oil, enamel, paint marker and spray paint on canvas, 48 x 60 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Marie-Dolma Chophel, ‘Winter’, 2013, oil, enamel, paint marker and spray paint on canvas, 48 x 60 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

The Private Collection

You are the curator and senior advisor of The Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Could you tell us briefly about the collection?

The Rubins are the founders of the Rubin Museum, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. The Private Collection is completely separate from the Museum, and it is administered from a different building [with] different offices. The Private Collection is quite vast, in terms of the Indian, Cuban and contemporary Tibetan focuses, but there are lots of anomalies, lots of pockets that the Rubins have been interested in, but not with large collections.

We also [the collection] have a private exhibition space on 17th Street, but separate and apart from the Rubin Museum, called The 8th Floor where we primarily show the Cuban collection.

Do you also work with the Rubin Museum?

I did work with the Museum on “Tradition Transformed”, and as the Museum was growing I did a lot of work at the beginning because my role was to support the founders, the CEO and the Board of the Rubin Museum for many years. Now the museum is completely staffed, with eighty or ninety people, and all of the work is in-house now.

I am also Senior Advisor to the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, which is the seat of all the philanthropy. I decide about the grants in certain pockets, focused on art, and I have been bringing artists, for example from the Himalayan region, to the Vermont Studio Center for seven years now. I have brought about fourteen artists to participate in the residency. We also fund a lot of projects on preservation as well as various interests in New York City, from the LGBTQ population to the Lower East Side Girls Club, so it’s a family foundation that has quite varied interests.

We also funded various preservation projects around sanitation and pilgrimage sites, the restoration of murals, helping architecture in Bhutan, the WWF Federation in Mongolia […] We are quite varied, even on the ground in Asia.

We fund a lot of books, a lot of humanitarian digital projects, like the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), as well as a project called the Treasury of Lives, which is an online encyclopedia of Tibetan lineages.

  Dedron, 'Mona Lisa', 2012, mineral pigment on canvas, 39 1/4 x 31 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Dedron, ‘Mona Lisa’, 2012, mineral pigment on canvas, 39.25 x 31 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Anonymity and Westernisation

The exhibition “Anonymous” has a very significant title within the art tradition of Tibet. What commanded the choice of this title and what does it represent?

Well, the idea was with me for some time as I joined the Rubins who had, as I said, a primarily traditional Tibetan collection, and there were no artist names within the collection. In our database, everything was “eighteenth century mineral pigments on cloth” and anonymous. There wasn’t a single name in the database, which was certainly a very interesting place for somebody who focused on Western art her entire career.

I thought that giving contemporary Tibetan artists the possibility of making work without name, without attribution, would create an interesting new spark for material, and my hope was that artists would take the opportunity to create new work to express themselves freely, from all over the world, not by specific invitation. I set up a website to have an open call for video art, and I very quickly understood from the artists that I was in touch with that nobody had any interest in being anonymous. Everybody wanted their name attached to their work – and they were all working in their highly individualised styles regardless so they would have been recognised if the names were removed anyway. Tenzing Rigdol, for example, or Tsering Sherpa and Losang Gyatso, their works are highly recognisable even if you don’t know their name.

I was also witnessing a transformation of the contemporary artists over the last eight years, where many of the contemporary works that came in through the door at the beginning were unsigned. Mr. Rubin, wanting everything to be attributed just from a western mindset, asked many of them to sign their works. So sometimes it was on the back, sometimes it was on the front, and we were definitely a part of the process! Not intentionally, but just imposing our western standards onto them really without much thought.

I was very eager to give the artists a more open form to express themselves, but again none of them took me up on that and it wasn’t until we started to receive the videos, that I had to make the decision that the videos should be presented anonymously even though they came in with names attached to them. But I made that choice because many of them are in Lhasa, and I just wasn’t sure that they understood they were submitting their work to travel and to be visible, and I didn’t want to create problems for any of them.

 Tulku Jamyang, 'Man-Dala', 2011, chromogenic color print with ink, 33 ¼ x 27 ½ in. Private Collection, New York. Image courtesy The Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Tulku Jamyang, ‘Man-Dala’, 2011, chromogenic color print with ink, 33.25 x 27.5 in. Private Collection, New York. Image courtesy the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Fire, video, pop culture: The artists and their art

So are the videos problematic? Do they tackle issues that might be censored?

Certainly, as with all that is created in politically sensitive regions, where there is a lot of government control, the artists find a very personal vocabulary in which they can express their ideas and still remain out of danger and uncensored. Depending on how you look at some of the works, they are very sensitive material. There is one video in particular of an artist circumambulating what looks like quite obviously an interrogation table. It’s an hour and forty minutes with a man walking around this interrogation table with a prayer wheel, and footprints appear over time – red footprints – and he becomes obviously very fatigued and then he is ultimately exhausted at the end of the video.

There is another video where an artist, or a man, walks into a Chinese restaurant with a small bag of groceries and goes directly into the kitchen and starts preparing food. He pulls out a tomato, an onion, some chilli peppers, and some very traditional Tibetan ingredients, and then pulls out pecha, a traditional Tibetan book of scriptures, and chops it up as noodles and stir-fries it all. Then he ladles this into a Styrofoam Chinese take-out container and sits down and eats it.

I wanted the artists to decide to say “that’s me” – or not. I didn’t take any drastic measures; some of them are certainly identifiable through very minimal research, if somebody is interested. But it’s up to the artists to decide if they want to identify themselves.

The exhibition has 27 participating artists. Which artists are from the diaspora and who are the ones that are still based in Tibet?

The artists come from Dharamsala, Kathmandu, Lhasa, and New York City (Queens-based), California, Bhutan, Zurich and Virginia. So, they are in diaspora and Lhasa based. We were able to get a lot of work from Lhasa-based artists through simple mailing of art in tubes, but not digital material, which is hard to come by because of Chinese international mailing regulations.

Most of the diaspora artists were born abroad and many of them are first-generation born in Kathmandu, meaning that their parents left the Tibetan regions and settled in Kathmandu, or in Dharamsala. Some of them spent a third of their life in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, then walked out to Dharamsala and then found their way to New York; some of them have never been to Tibet.

Karma Phuntsok, who is an Australian Outback, left at a different age than the others. We also have artists that were born in New York City, like Palden Weinreb, whose mother is Tibetan and father is a native New Yorker. In this show are also the very first works made by Tulku Jamyang, who is primarily based in Kathmandu and Bhutan – it’s fascinating to see the very first works made about self-expression by a reincarnated master.

Most of the artists that I work with in Lhasa are quite established and show and sell primarily through Rossi and Rossi, or show in various exhibits. Artists like Gade, Dedron, Nortse, Pemba Wangdu, Jhamsang, Benchung and Ang Sang have been on my radar for some time, and some of the very first crop of artists who are changing and breaking from the tradition.

 Jhamsang, 'Mr. XXX', 2010, digital print, silkscreen, collage and acrylic on canvas, 52 x 77 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy The Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Jhamsang, ‘Mr. XXX’, 2010, digital print, silkscreen, collage and acrylic on canvas, 52 x 77 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Is there a specific difference in themes, topics, subjects as well as media used by artists that are from the diaspora and artists that are still living in Tibet?

Yes, though probably not as much as you would expect, but there is a contrast. Somebody like Tenzin Rigdol, who is Queens-based, is taking many more overt risks with his visual vocabulary and using a lot of fire, traditional symbols, fire extinguishers and traditional Tibetan texts.

Artists in Lhasa are probably using a slightly more gentle approach. Access to materials is very different, there is a little bit of video work coming out of Lhasa. Artists like Kesang Lamdark are using melted plastic, blow torches and TVs – different materials than artists there [in Tibet], who are primarily in painting. They use their traditional skills to express themselves in a contemporary way, but still using a lot of traditional pigments and traditional sketches and imagery, like Gade. One of the images in the show of a contemporary mahakala, that The New York Times ran, is very traditional. He’s just exchanged the traditional deities or figures from the outside of a thangka with camouflage military, and mahakala is also in camouflage holding grenades and Mao’s Little Red Book.

Many of them are expressing very personal concepts and experiences. There is a huge variety, from the artist Sodhon, who was an illustrator and cartoonist, to Losang Gyatso, who is a graphic designer working in Virginia. Gyatso took stills off a TV newsbit in the spring of 2008 when a small group of press was invited into monasteries in Tibet and became very emotional. He used the press stills off TV images and distorted them.

And then some of the artists are exaggerating Buddhist deities, replacing them with contemporary pop culture figures. Lots of them are using iconometry, the nearly 2000-year-old tradition of drawing an icon and exaggerating its geometry.

All the artists have varied backgrounds. Marie-Dolma Chophel, who is half Croatian, half Tibetan, and living in Brooklyn, has never been to Tibet. She imagines landscapes based on the stories that her father told her, but she was trained in the French academy.

Something else that is interesting is that there are only two women in the entire show, the other being Lhasa-based Dedron. It’s definitely a male-dominated art scene, for many reasons – the painting skills were primarily passed on through monastic tradition and through apprenticeship, and women have a lot of catching up to do, I think.

  Nortse, 'Group Photo', 2007, chromogenic color print, 21.7 x 20.8 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy The Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

Nortse, ‘Group Photo’, 2007, chromogenic color print, 21.7 x 20.8 in. Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. Image courtesy the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection.

The exhibition includes both emerging and established artists. Who are the most established and well-known names in the exhibition? And the most promising emerging artists?

I would say that there are artists who are prominent internationally and then there are artists who are prominent within Lhasa – and then there is some crossover. But in terms of art fairs, publicity, attention and prolific production, artists like Tsherin Sherpa from Oakland, California, Tenzing Rigdol from Queens and Kesang Lamdark from Zurich. There are also artists that aren’t in the show, like Gonkar Gyatso, who is probably the most well-known contemporary Tibetan artist. He was a part of “Tradition Transformed”.

But then the art scene within Lhasa is of course very small, and some of those artists have received a lot of visibility – in London through Rossi and Rossi, or Beijing, through the exhibition “Scorching Sun”. Nortse, Gade, Dedron, Jhamsang and Pemba Wangdu are all aware of each other, because it’s such a small group, globally. They all work in different styles.

Karma Phuntsok, who was a monk for twenty years, is now living in Queens, and has done a lot of work with Bob Thurman, and illustrated books with Tibet House in New York. Tsering Nyandak is not traditionally trained but is widely shown. Tsewang Tashi is also Lhasa-based and is mostly known for painting and photography. They accept invitations to participate in exhibitions that aren’t necessarily Tibet focused. Kesang Lamdark just participated in a show in Cleveland called “Dirt”, it’s about life and death, an exhibit where he was the only Tibetan. So that is starting to happen.

Tulku Jamyang is just at the very beginning of his artistic career. He is the brother of Tsherin Sherpa, who is now quite established. He was just at the Vermont Studio Center, and is now back in Kathmandu – he is definitely someone to watch. Sodhon is an artist of interest, who is evolving.

And there are artists who aren’t in this show that are starting to do some more interesting work, and I want to include them in Queens, when the show opens at the Queens Museum on 21 September 2014.

This is a travelling show, it was at the Dorsky, then in Vermont, and it goes to Queens, which is the site of the largest diaspora Tibetan population in the United States and outside Dharamsala, with seven to ten thousand Tibetans living in Queens.

I’m going to include some new artists in Queens, and focus a little differently on the Queens-based Tibetan artists, because there are many living there. I am also going to include an artist from the Netherlands in the Queens version, and another artist from California. So like every exhibition, it changes with the interest of the institutions.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


Related Topics: Tibetan artists, museum shows, curatorial practice, Buddhist artemerging artists, migration, globalisation of art, identity art, memory, mythical figures, politicalphotography, collectors, philanthropists, foundationstouring exhibitions, events in the USA, interviews

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more on contemporary Tibetan art