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Peak Art: A Contemporary Tibetan Art Gallery in Dharamshala

Setting Up for July 6th Exhibition at Peak Art Gallery, Dharamshala, India. Photo: TPI

Dharamshala: - Culture is an indispensable tool in the expression of both personal and collective identity. The Tibetan culture in particular is increasingly fractured as it is suspended without geographical grounding, and the identities of Tibetans living in exile as well as those who remain in Tibet teeter on precarious footing.

By keeping the practice of Tibetan art alive, contemporary artists preserve the hope that Tibetan culture will be upheld by future generations, whether living in exile or in Tibet, while building artistic and cultural bridges into the future.

Many contemporary Tibetan artists choose to explore nontraditional themes, addressing highly personal and modern issues rather than continuing the practice of Buddhist Thangka art, an art form that has until recently been the thrust of Tibetan efforts in exile as a means of preserving tradition. Yet we live in a world where culture cannot successfully survive if it is continually looking to the past for affirmation. Contemporary Tibetan artists are engaging Tibetan society in a dialogue between the past and present, in India and in Tibet, as a powerful way explore the diverse identities of the Tibetan community. The potential of art to create spaces that don't yet exist in reality can help us to explore, shape, and define culture, and determine how we maintain our identity as the edges of our worlds move. Contemporary Tibetan art has the power to generate new images, ideas, and visions of Tibetans as well as their own changing world views, providing a crucial balance to the overwhelming influences of Chinese, Indian, and Western culture.

In order to address this confluence of factors, Sarah Mac and Tashi Gyatso collaborated in opening the Peak Art Gallery in McLeod Ganj in April 2010. Before the Peak Art Gallery, there was no space for contemporary Tibetan art to be exhibited or for developing artists to express themselves. Rather than exporting young talent abroad to cities where contemporary art milieus already thrive, Mac and Gyatso wanted to help generate an art scene at home in McLeod Ganj, where many Tibetans now reside. The modern, urban sensibility of the gallery and its commitment to community have provided a catalyst for young artists to showcase their aesthetic and social interests, engaging an important niche in the community. While Contemporary Tibetan Art is a global phenomenon not unique to McLeod Ganj (there have previously been exhibitions and galleries concentrating on Contemporary Tibetan art all over the world: New York, London, Lhasa, Beijing), the Peak Art Gallery is the first and only gallery in India to be completely dedicated to Contemporary Tibetan art.

The artists represented by Peak Art Gallery paint on themes as varied as traditional Tibetan people and scenery, environmental degradation, nostalgia, religion, and portraiture. Four of the seven artists now on exhibit were trained in Thangka art by masters of the traditional Menri style, many have backgrounds in the fine arts, they have worked as muralists, illustrators, and cartoonists, and each struggles to communicate their individual style and experiences through various media. Most recently, artist Tenzin Dakpa has explored the reality of refugee life by painting everyday objects that are poignant components of life in McLeod Ganj. Nagwang Dorjee is playful in his memory of Tibet; he paints lighthearted watercolors of monks riding bicycles, and girls at a picnic braiding flowers into each other's hair. Artist Druk Tsegyal has said "As of now I am more into where my heart is-painting modern art."

Tibetan local Yang Sham feels that Tibetans making modern art is a positive direction for the community. "It definitely speaks for us, and it is something that both Westerners and Tibetans can understand. The Tibetan relationship with Thangka art is one of veneration, we see these works not as art but as objects of worship. We don't study the form or technique. So through modern art we can really say something, people can talk to people with tools other than language, instead of the gods talking to us. It brings the message down to earth; rather than art being reserved for gods and deities, it can communicate to all of us."

The relationship with Western techniques of representation for artists who also adhere to traditional Buddhist philosophy might seem conflicted, but Yang Sham explains that "because of His Holiness, Tibetans here take Buddhism in a very modern way. In Tibet, it is all rituals and prayers, but here we try to understand the fundamental philosophy of Buddhism, we interrogate why. That is what these artist are doing as well."

In an interview in 2010, Mac said "I am intensely curious about the viability of social enterprise and I wanted to try it out, to see if it could be a sustainable way to affect change. Tashi similarly felt that it was our duty to create an enterprise that went beyond being responsible; we wanted to make a positive contribution to our local society, so we created a unique business plan that weds a traditional for-profit business model with that of an NGO. Negotiating the two disparate models is a bit of a balancing act, but it is a valuable experience that we hope will someday become applicable on a greater scale."

Gyatso explained the impact that the pair hopes the gallery will have on the Tibetan community in Mcleod Ganj, saying, "Ultimately the gallery is designed to serve as a launching pad for artists early in their career, one which can benefit the community of McLeod Ganj by supplying meaningful employment and being a vehicle through which artistic voice can be explored and heard." Mac added, "Our goal is to support young artists so they can achieve the careers of which they have dreamed. I believe in my core that people must have voice to have agency; that is what the gallery is about, and it is the root of all self-determination."

The symbiotic relationship between art and society doesn't necessarily happen through or rely solely on the direct viewing of art, but also through its influences on the work of writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other storytellers. The work of artists engaged in producing art as a self-determining process cannot help but impact the whole of society, becoming a catalyst for cultural renewal. The Peak Art Gallery has previously hosted temporary exhibitions that bring together different artistic components of the community, such as the Art + Poetry exhibition earlier this year, which featured the work of six Tibetan contemporary painters and five Tibetan poets in an evening event.

The Peak Art Gallery will host another exhibition entitled FRINGE: Art From the Edge of Tibet from August 26 to September 20, 2011.The paintings featured in the exhibition range in theme from landscape to character study; Tenzin Chokling's scenes of traditional Tibet capture the spirituality of the land and the character of its nomadic inhabitants, while Tenzin Dorjee's portraits convey the conflicted personalities of Tibetan exiles living in India. There are poignant scenes of Tibetan life which could belong to either "here" or "there," accentuating the preservation of culture and a strong collective nostalgia for it. The emotional register of the exhibition skips from buoyant, joyful, and proud, to filled with longing and frustration, reflecting the incalculable variety of emotional responses that in turn make up the human register.

The opening reception for FRINGE will take place on August 26th from 5:00 to 8:00 pm. The reception is free and open to the public; light refreshments will be served.

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