The craft of art

A painting by Ang Tsherin

There used to be a time when Tibetan devotional art meant murals and thangkas. Not anymore. An  internationally-renowned Sherpa family has given modern meaning to the historic art form.

Tulku Jamyang, 41, and his brother Ang Tsherin, 50, learnt thangka painting from their famous father, Urgen Dorje Sherpa. He did not just teach his sons the craft of the art, but also the spiritualism behind it.

However, as they grew up, the brothers found the format too rigid and formless, and with little room for personal exploration. Even as they turned to more private expressions, however, their creations today  display clear influences from the early roots.

"My works are not thangka, they portray my personal take on today's society and politics, the feeling of being out of place everywhere, whether as an ethnic minority in Nepal, or an oriental man in the West," explains Ang Tsherin, whose art often depicts alienation and displacement. Buddhist deities wear socks and underclothes in unconventional postures.

Tulku Jamyang (pictured right) lives a hermit-like existence in his studio in Kathmandu, but is a keen observer of the changes he sees around him. A young woman wears a gown of rhododendron clutching on to a Starbucks mug, and in another commentary on the slow pace of development in Nepal seven sloth bears represent the seven provinces of Nepal.

These and other paintings by Tulku Jamyang are on display and sale at the Changing Lanes exhibition at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. The artist’s technique is to burn tiny holes with incense on paper that give the works a meticulous dot matrix texture.

He combines this technique with western motifs like Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper, Van Gogh's Starry Night, and Marcel Duchamp's urinal. "I include these western motifs because this is how Nepali society is changing," explains Jamyang, who portrays migration and alienation through a painting of Nepalis in different ethnic costumes sitting at a table like in The Last Supper.

Jamyang spent 11 years as a monk in a monastery, which gives his art a dense and spiritually layered appearance. Not only do they contain his own interpretations of the Buddha, but the act of burning holes with incense sticks to create his images is itself a spiritual performance. The process has to be so precise that a single mistake can ruin the entire painting, so for Jamyang the total concentration it requires is like meditation.

"I use all the pancha tatwa or the five elements that together represent truth: earth, water, air, fire, and water, in my paintings. My canvas is the earth and incense sticks are fire. When I blow on them, I use the air, and the liquid colours represent water. When they are displayed in space, that is the sky element."

Ang Tsherin (pictured right), for his part, is self-taught. His abstract style evolved from his own exploration into modern art and interactions with fellow artists of many nationalities. Though his work may look contemporary, he admits the technique is derived from thangka art that he learnt from his father as a child.

Though both brothers turned away from thangka, today they find appreciation and concern for the Tibetan and Nepali devotional art form. "As a child, I used to be ashamed that I was learning this art," recalls Tsherin. "At that time it was seen as something uneducated people did for a living, and was not respected. It was cooler to be doctors and engineers."

It was in the United States in 1998 that Tsherin saw the traditional paintings of his community through Western eyes, began to appreciate its richness and grew concerned about its degeneration – with commercialisation and the loss of the philosophical underpinning of the art.

Tsherin relocated back to Nepal last year after 20 years in the US. He adds: “I only realised the value of my heritage after I saw it respected abroad. I now want to pass on that appreciation to the next generation of Nepali artists. If the artworks of living master like my father can be treasured by museums, then it will also inspire a new generation. That will be a step towards conserving it.”

Tulku Jamyang agrees: “The artist must survive for the art to survive, so we must take care of the artists. Economic survival is important, and in the case of thangka, so is respect.”

At 75, their father Urgen Dorje, continues to be active and is currently restoring a monastery in Tatopani.

Changing Lanes

Siddhartha Art Gallery

Until 29 November

Read also:

The world beyond thankas, Smriti Basnet

Sacred survival, Michael Gordan