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Tibetan Art in Translation - the Buddha goes Bang!

Zara Fleming

Wednesday 20th March 2019


This lecture will look at Tibetan art from the early twentieth century to the present day and the changes that have occurred during that time span. It will chart the first Tibetan objects arriving in museums and then look at what happens to Tibetan art after the Chinese occupation and colonisation.

Tibet as a geopolitical entity no longer exists as the former country is now part of China. Yet art work produced today by Tibetan artists in China, and amongst exiled communities elsewhere in the world, is being created in a new and dynamic style. Artists explore contemporary issues by integrating centuries old traditional Buddhist influences with modern imagery.

 And the Buddha definitely does go Bang!

Zara is a freelance lecturer, art consultant and exhibition curator specialising in the art and culture of Tibet, the Himalayan regions and Mongolia. Initially based at the V&A, she has also worked in the Central Asia Department of Bonn University, The Orient Foundation, The Royal Academy, and many other institutions. She lectures to many museums and universities as well as for the Arts Society. She has been the guest lecturer and tour guide on numerous trips to the Himalayas. Zara has edited ‘Masterpieces of Mongolian Art Vol 1’ and has published many articles in the field of Buddhist art and culture.


Review of “Tibetan Art in transition – The Buddha goes Bang” by Ann Marriott

Throughout history Tibet has been regarded as a land of mystery.

In the 5th century Herodotus said that ants mined gold in Tibet. Nowadays the Chinese who took over Tibet in 1950 do mine gold.

The view in the middle ages was that Tibet was the land of Prestor John who would defeat the powerful Muslims.

Tibet and the British Empire in India had a rocky relationship. In the nineteenth  century the Brits sent  Indians known as pundits into Tibet with primitive equipment eg necklaces for measuring. The pundits produced a first map of Tibet which showed the major towns. This replaced what had previously been a blank area on world maps.

In the seventh century Tibet adopted Buddhism. Buddhism is still strong today in spite of Chinese disapproval, although they said they would respect Tibetan culture and religion. Buddhist resistance to Chinese occupation has frequently taken the form of suicide by self immolation in flames. This is a bad thing for a Buddhist to do because it interferes with the process of regeneration.

Buddhist art is intended to be an aid to meditation. The traditional training for thangka painting begins by creating specific measurement grids for the Buddhist deity.

The lecturer introduced us to Tsherin Sherpa whose depictions of the Buddha included references to the three poisons – ignorance, greed and hatred. He kept the tradition of thangka painting alive but has also developed his painting to express spirituality in a more modern style.

Artist Gongkar Gyatso, a refugee from Tibet now living and working in the USA uses all sorts of symbols to make a collage to fill his Buddha outline.

Tenzing Rigdol now working in the USA has used the traditional theme of the Buddha’s footprints to make points about the treatment of Tibet. He also produced a painting in which the Buddha’s head is composed of flames. This has clear relevance to the situation of Buddhists in Tibet under Chinese rule.

Gade is working in Lhasa in Tibet but has moved on from traditional thangka painting to produce expressive modern art.