Tsherin Sherpa, The Fifty-Four Views of Wisdom and Compassion (Untitled I), 2014. Commissioned and produced by the Samdani Art Foundation for the Dhaka Art Summit 2014. Courtesy of the artist, the Dhaka Art Summit and the Samdani Art Foundation.
Historically, Tibetan art only existed in a religious context. Lha dri ba in Tibetan means to draw a deity, and it is the only expression available to describe “art,” as art was often used for meditation or paying tribute. Nepalese Painter Tsherin Sherpa extends this expression into a global contemporary art context, and created three new paintings that explore the relationship between Tibetan tradition and identity in the 21st century for the Dhaka Art Summit. The artist is based between Oakland and Kathmandu, and he created these works in his studio in Nepal. His work has been exhibited extensively internationally, including the landmark exhibition at the Rubin Museum in New York, “Tradition Transformed - Tibetan Artist’s Respond.”
Born in Kathmandu to a Tibetan Buddhist family in 1968, Sherpa apprenticed with his father Master Urgen Dorje Sherpa in the thangka painting tradition. Sherpa’s practice has preserved the meticulous detail of the canonical thangka but his figures are distilled from the structured, underlying grid systems and symbols that bring the traditional deity’s form to life. In recent years his emphasis has shifted from traditional subjects to more contemporary concerns, including imagining what traditional Tibetan spirits would now look like if they too had left Tibet and journeyed with him to California (where he now lives). By exporting his figures out of their context Sherpa explains, “[t]hrough centuries of reproduction, the essences of many of these spiritual tools have been lost. Bits and pieces have been chopped away or forgotten to be included due to the patronage of a tourist class that doesn’t know the ritual usage of the painting. By consciously deconstructing and abstracting the deity, I’m interested to see what parts of its essence will be revealed and reinvigorated through the process of exploring meaning, form, and identity.”
Bangladesh shares a deep connection with the history of Sherpa’s Tibetan Buddhist faith. The founder of the Kadampa school of Buddhism, Atisha (980-1054 CE) was born in East Bengal (in an area that is now in Bangladesh). Like the Buddha, Atisha is believed to have been born into a royal family and grew to espouse the ways of the cloth than that of the sword. Celebrated for the brilliance of his teachings and his unparalleled abilities in debate, Atisha was soon appointed abbot of Nalanda Monastery, the greatest of all Buddhist monasteries in India. So great was his reach that he was invited to teach in Tibet. There he composed the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, a text that distilled all of the Buddha’s eighty four thousand teachings of Dharma into a clear simple guide for practice. Atisha stayed in Tibet for 17 years in total, and his teachings were passed down to subsequent generations, including to the great Je Tsongkhapa, whose Atisha inspired lam-rim texts remain the cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhist teachings to this day.
Atisha’s teachings reached Sherpa’s grandparents in Tibet, which were subsequently taught to Sherpa in Nepal, and now travel back to Bangladesh through Sherpa’s technically fascinating and richly colored multi-paneled paintings. Atisa’s legacy has been the driving force behind the three works presented here. As Sherpa points out, “as a person viewing him from a historical vantage point today, we glimpse at different perspectives of him depending on our cultural boundaries. Through globalization, these different boundaries come up next to each other physically and virtually to expose a form that is greater than its individual parts. Through time, countries are always reestablishing new geographic borders which in turn assist cultures to re-invent itself. By seeing the links and gaps between these forms, I hope one can contemplate the whole.”
The Fifty-four Views of Wisdom and Compassion (Untitled I) consists of separate pieces (20 x 20 inches each on canvas) that compose the whole. The central deity, Chakrasamvara, exists in fragments throughout the work. These pieces are depicted from different vantage points; some show portions from a zoomed-in perspective while others are from an eagle-eye view. Charkrasamvara, translated in the West as “Highest Bliss,” is one of the principles of istha-devatā, or meditational deities of the Sarma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Typically depicted with a blue-coloured body, four faces, and twelve arms, the deity is represented embracing his consort Vajravarahi in the yab-yum position. Their divine embrace serves as a metaphor for the union of great bliss and emptiness, perceived as one and the same essence.
The other two works on paper are a continuation of Sherpa’s Protector series. As thangkas are either destroyed, lost, or moved away from their natural environment of monasteries and private altars, they begin to take on a new context. As a whole, this series explores how these abstractions of deities will function and be perceived by a new set of viewers in secular space. In the previous series, the individual deity recedes into an elegant swirling form. The familiar structure of a grid system is no longer used to stabilize and support it. At the same moment that the traditional is becoming ungrounded, something new is arising. This is the first time that Sherpa works with multiple intermingling deities, and he wanted to explore how “the energy changes from a single form to that of a space consisting of multiplicity and repetition.”