Over the last decade, the art emerging from Nepal — and those influenced by its culture and history — has changed, evolving markedly from figurative depictions of gods and goddesses, temples and landscapes, even when using the age-old symbolism encoded into the rituals of painting deities and their surrounding abodes.
With the entry into a true contemporary method, and the increasing inclusion of conceptualism, artists have begun to gain recognition outside of Nepal and the sub-continent — an important step that had only been hitherto taken by masters like the late Lain Singh Bangdel and Laxman Shrestha, both of whom practice styles that can be deemed more ‘classically’ modern as their works are largely in the impressionist or abstract expressionist styles. The works emerging today from artists, mostly young, are taking the kind of outspoken liberties that were perhaps harder, even unthinkable, for the generations that preceded them.
Certain platforms have enabled this kind of boundary breaking; the Photo Kathmandu and Kathmandu Triennale (previously the Kathmandu International Art Festival) festivals, along with the emergence of galleries and smaller museums across the valley (and a scattering outside of it), have facilitated a broader meeting of cultures, concepts, and discourses, providing spaces where artists can both learn and teach outside of their formal environments.
An abundance of international art festivals have also provided opportunities for artists to travel and engage in cutting-edge emerging art technologies and philosophies that are trans-regional, providing an important counterpoint to traditional historical narratives and slightly outdated tropes. In keeping with these kinds of exchanges, in April 2019, the Weltmuseum in Vienna, Austria organised a six-month long, landmark show of mostly contemporary Nepali art. Titled ‘Nepal Art Now’, the show was catalysed by the perseverance of the late, great Dina Bangdel, aided by the diligence of the Nepal Art Council, and showcased the works of 37 artists working across varied media.
The exhibition at the Weltmuseum was revelatory in many ways. Mostly European visitors, largely unfamiliar with the works presented, were struck by the diversity, boldness, and ingenuity of the art on display. Classical works of Newar artisans were showcased alongside contemporary pieces, and it was really this juxtaposition of the traditional beside the contemporary that highlighted the emergence of new voices.
On view among these works, veering away from the traditional in a markedly thoughtful manner, was ‘54 Views of Wisdom and Compassion’ (2014), a dynamic, puzzle-like, large-scale, multi-panelled acrylic-on-canvas piece by Ang Tsherin Sherpa, a Tibetan artist born and brought up in Nepal.
Much has already been written about Sherpa since he first came to notice in 2010: his youth and training as a thangka artist from the age of 13 under his venerable artist father, Urgen Dorje Sherpa; his move to Taiwan: a breaking away from the arts to study computer science and Mandarin; his exodus to California, where the artist as he is today was perhaps born, channeling the culmination of the displacements that had shaped his psyche, starting from his parents’ exile from Tibet. All of these aspects have been remarked upon by various art historians over the past 10 years while Sherpa’s career has steadily burnished.
Most artists, regardless of where they come from, do not break away from the indelible identities that are created from their nurtured environment (this is not a judgement, merely an observation), and all that that implies: personally and religiously, in relation to their myth-making self-constructs. There are a handful of artists from Nepal — Pramila Giri and Birendra Pratap Singh (with a lot of their pieces, though not all) are both wonderful examples — who work by consciously not suffusing their works with clues of their origins, forging a path that is conceptual and informed by their chosen explorations of the world.
Oddly, not a lot has been written about the unique place Tsherin Sherpa’s work occupies in the trajectory of the art history of the Himalayan region as it evolves from the traditional to an exploration of something else. His art is a strange and wonderful combination of constructed identity, acknowledgement of displacement, active exploration, open-minded research, instinctive flair, and compassionate, inclusive humanism.¹
His most recent exhibition at the light-filled Wind Horse Gallery in Lalitpur’s Bhanimandal (January 2 – February 28) showcased the largest volume of Sherpa’s work seen in Nepal to date (in the past, a few pieces have been shown here and there in group exhibitions). Though none of the works were present in their original form — the show consisted of numbered, limited edition prints — the opportunity to trace the course of the artist’s work through 15 different pieces provided an invaluable glimpse into the multiple facets at play in Sherpa’s mind.
Ranging from the deeply spiritual to playful, cheeky and contemplative, Sherpa’s work is distinct, full of sincere feeling, innocent, but also tongue-in-cheek. The forms that the artist mastered as a teenager under the tutelage of his father have found another life in his paintings as an adult, inhabiting each frame in a three dimensional manner, looking to participate and comment on our material world, leaving behind the confines of their holy aspects as they wade into the complexities of the everyday. One could have a beer with the god-guy in ‘We’re All in this Together’ (2020), talking about esoteric Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, or hang out with the dude in ‘Peace (Yellow)’ (2013), speaking about how the world has gone to pot.
Then, there are sublime mystical works like ‘3 Wise Men’ (2019) and ‘Spiritual Warrior’ (2020) that bookend the exhibition, almost as if to remind us that despite the playfulness evident in many of the pieces on view, the artist is deeply engaged with the more edifying principles of Buddhism, and all its transcendental glory.
Born in 1968, Sherpa is youthful, soft-spoken, quick to laugh or smile, with bright eyes, and the calm demeanour of a practicing Buddhist that hides his searching mind and polyglot abilities. He is trilingual, speaking English, Nepali, and Tibetan fluently; his Mandarin is conversational. His concerns about the world are evident in his responses to questions about his work. He regards each question thoughtfully, his reactions are often couched within the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, which, while universally appealing, is complex and arcane in practice, its philosophies of nondualism famously difficult to grasp.
The simplest way of explaining Nondualism, in the artist’s own words, is the understanding that things are not ‘this’ or ‘that’, i. e., broadly speaking, an artwork, or even a piece of cheese, is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, ‘delicious’ or ‘yucky’; instead everything is connected and nothing is ‘other’. Fully grasping a concept that seems so nebulous can be a struggle for the non-practicing Buddhist’s mind. But Sherpa grapples with these ideas, investing his work with the knowledge he searches for, examining his own religion and traditions, seeking the problematic aspects within even the perceived purity of Tibetan Buddhism, vocally advocating for a tempering of traditions so that they can be carried on in a way that makes sense in the modern world.
Many people who search for the spiritual grapple with how they can live in the world as it is without renouncing it completely. The sacred and the secular clash every day in the modern world and in Nepal, with corrupt politicians conducting elaborate rituals at holy sites. Sherpa also feels that sometimes the most ascetic of principles are imposed upon our quotidian, working lives. Those who push back are terrorised into submission by the superstitions inherent in our part of the world. It is these kinds of opposing expectations between the supposed purity of religion and the naked, grasping materialism of the world we live in that preoccupies the artist’s mind and invades his art.
To reduce Sherpa’s work to this kind of ironic dualism would be a major injustice. There are many aspects and subtleties to his art, and his vast body of work requires minute examination to truly understand the ideas at play behind the artist’s mind.
When Sherpa moved to California in 1998, he was a practising thangka artist. Slowly, as he painted, and interacted with other artists and art historians, he began to move beyond the strict parameters he had been taught so rigorously in his youth, imbuing his art with the preoccupations on his mind: Wall Street’s venality (spurred by the 2008 financial crisis), the struggle to be spiritual in a material world, and the chaos of the universe that dictates our every-day lives; all of these concerns are coded into his paintings. The ideas behind each piece are thoughtful, questioning, often open-ended. The iconography that Sherpa so meticulously memorised in his youth, the philosophies he imbibed during his Buddhist studies are subverted to pose these questions — to which there are really no answers.
When he was young, Sherpa often drew comic book figures, copying, emulating, and creating his own. He would then cut out the figures and use them to assemble another iteration of compositions that suited his imagination. Looking at his work today, it has often been characterised as ‘pop-y’ or ‘comic-book-like’; but it is the aspects of exploration and playfulness that are at work in the art, more than just facile, eye-catching renditions of age-old characterisations, stemming from this practice that the artist developed in his youth, taking something he loved and creating new meaning from it.
‘Things That POP In My Head’ (2009) is a fantastical distillation of an artist trying to reconcile the messiness of the world. In the work a man’s body is outlined by a panel of gold-leaf, and his head is a bubble of signifiers, indicating the multiple things that go on in a person’s mind at any given point in time, from money to sex, travel plans, geopolitics, religion, emotions, perfection, and beauty. Nondualism can mean many things, but it can also mean that there are multiple selves within one: the good, the bad, the bewildered, the devout, the ugly.
‘Untitled’ (2010), another earlier work, is also striking in its imagery. Here, against a gold leaf background, two seemingly divine figures wear gas-masks as they confront each other in what could be a face-off. Behind them, a skull outlines their deadly face gear and clenched fists, and within the skull shape, there are more death heads. The divine and the profane clash in one of Sherpa’s most powerful works, embodying the confusion, angst, and pain of our modern world, where the news is rarely good, the planet is poisoned by both pure and impure intentions, and conflict is everywhere, within religions, between religions, between everyone who sees ‘the other’ in those different from themselves.
Sherpa’s boundary-breaking, genre-defying work was first seen in 2010 in a landmark group exhibition at the Rubin Museum in New York, aptly titled ‘Tradition Transformed’. Sherpa was one of nine Tibetan artists showing at the prestigious venue, all working using unique combinations of the traditional and contemporary. Sherpa’s representation by Rossi & Rossi, the mother-son run gallery specialising in Asian contemporary art, had begun just before the show at the Rubin, and since then, Sherpa, who paints daily, has exhibited widely around the world, individually and in group exhibitions.
Sherpa was in the US when the 2015 earthquake hit Nepal. He returned to find devastation and grief everywhere in the land of his childhood. In addition to the humanitarian work he helmed to aid the survivors, Sherpa’s 2016 exhibition at the Rossi & Rossi Gallery in Hong Kong, ‘Beautiful Decay’, is a contemplation and extrapolation of the emotions he experienced during the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal.
The piece ‘Muted Expression’ (2015), from the show, speaks clearly of the jumble of emotions and sorrows that pervaded all those who came in contact with the plight of the earthquake survivors, the mudras of the hands and the entangled, writhing feet emblematic of a great overarching sorrow. The silver leaf, as with the gold in other works, serves to accent each piece’s underlying concerns, edifying both the mundane and the lofty in another subversion of elements that is also used in traditional thangka painting.
For those who have never quite understood the plight of the refugees, the 2015 earthquake brought home the terror of displacement. The contemplation of the loss of one’s shelter, and emotional seat, the fabric of everything one knows and loves disintegrating is a terrifying thing. Force majeure brought people together in Nepal in a time of great need and empathy abounded. But losing a home is still different to losing one’s homeland altogether.
Sherpa has explored widely the effects of this loss. He has spoken about his sense of displacement and his affinity to his many different identities, brought about by the places he has rooted himself over the course of his life: Tibet (certainly the idea of it), Nepal, Taiwan (in that the time there brought him back to the art he really loved), and California. With each new place, it is as if the artist has gained a wider, kinder world view, expanding himself instead of narrowing down. While his parents’ exile was forced, Sherpa’s new horizons have been chosen, allowing for an inclusiveness and sympathy for the greater world that is not often apparent these days in works by those caught up in identity politics.
The breadth of Sherpa’s concerns and compassions become evident in the diversity of his works. In the Wind Horse Gallery show, there are a few pieces that will remain iconic in their statement making: ‘Metamorphosis’ (2020) is an image of two spirit figures facing each other. Their bodies are rapidly melting, swirling with changing colours and imagery as gorgeous butterflies fly around them against a stark black background. The questions this work poses are universal. What could it mean? That everyone is changing constantly if they can open themselves up to that change? That the world is constant only in its chaos (signified by the butterflies that are a leitmotif in Sherpa’s work, emblematic of his interest in Chaos Theory)? One could contemplate it endlessly, meditating on its possible meanings, caught up in its beauty and strange symmetry.
So much of art is about self-exploration, presenting the myriad aspects of the self to the world, framed by a painting’s parameters (this has been said before by a number of artists). Those who can study the self, and expand outwards can become compassionate artists like Sherpa, engaged in the concerns of both oneself and others; fortifying their work with that depth of feeling.
Today, when so much of the world is divided by gender or the fluidity of it, by class, caste, colour, political affiliation, it is soothing to find such inclusivity, an open-ended calling in rather than a calling out². Perhaps that is why Sherpa’s work has transcended the niches inherent in the art world too, becoming so beloved across cultures and forced categories.
Just as it is tempting to think of the bubble-gum blowing, insouciant figure in ‘We Are All In This Together’ as an avatar of the artist himself, the truth is probably closer to the notion that all the characters in Sherpa’s work are some version of himself, the metamorphosing spirits, the bubble-gum chewers, the god unabashedly in his underpants, with a hand on his hip, the other raised in the air in a gesture of triumph (Victory to the Spirit, 2016) — all are glorious, nondualistic portraits of humanity and of the artist himself.
Correction: The Windhorse Gallery is in Lalitpur’s Bhanimandal, not Bakhundole as originally stated.
¹ This “humanism” was first mentioned in the introductory essay by HG Masters in the Rossi & Rossi catalogue of Sherpa’s “Beautiful Decay” (2016) show in Hong Kong.
² Loretta J. Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College, USA teaches a popular class that examines the limitations of the “call out” or cancel culture – advocating instead for an inclusive dialogue by “calling in” rather than cancelling out those one disagrees with.