“Whoever wants to engage people’s interest must provoke them.” –Salvador Dali
“Creativity takes courage.” –Henri Matisse
“For me, art has one language and it is not relevant to divide the artistic legacy and production into Western or non-Western.” –Subodh Gupta
“If you are creating something new, a sign that you are doing something is when people criticize you, because you are provoking something. It clashes with their long-held ideas and questions them.”–Tenzin Gyurmey
On the first day of Losar Tibetan New Year (21st February), I had the good fortune to meet and interview one of the most unique, inventive and exciting contemporary Tibetan artists, Tenzin Gyurmey at The Other Space Gallery, Mcleod Ganj, India. The Other Space (as I have written about before here in relation to Nicolas Vreelands’ exhibition) which is a few minutes’ walk from the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, was set up to be a café that hosts art exhibits. Gyurmey’s current solo exhibition there called Behind the Two Mountains immediately caught my eye with its colourful symbolic ‘prints’ of surrealist and Tibetan imagery. Below this introduction and review is the full transcript of our two-hour interview, (and my first meeting with him) together with images of the artworks and descriptions kindly given by Gyurmey on request.
Gyurmey’s story follows the trajectory of a naturally talented, yet materially ‘poor’ artist who managed to create unique art despite the odds. When I asked him about his life, he first explained his humble beginnings as the son of a tulku Tibetan thangka artist (who was very connected to the 16th Karmapa), who had no materials or books to study art when he was at school, and other than his father and art teacher (who left for a ‘better’ school) there were not many external cultural or artistic influences, support and resources. Due to such social pressures to do well at school, he planned to study genetic engineering in Delhi, but karma intervened and he was unable to take up the place. Then, encouraged by his sister, he returned to his love of art by studying at the best art college in Delhi. Through that study, and meetings with another Tibetan contemporary artist, Tsering Sherpa, he held his first art exhibit in Kathmandu, Nepal, which led to him selling one of his works for the first time.
Gyurmey’s work is not only extraordinary in terms of its unique imagery, materials, visual and visceral impact but also its unique symbolism in terms of its references to both Indian and Tibetan exile culture, taboos, forbidden activities, proverbs and spiritual iconography. For example, Gyurmey’s story of not being able to afford the canvases and using as a substitute the woven taupe material of the sacks delivered to the refugee community by the USA, is touching and symbolic of his journey as a Tibetan exile, but also as an artist and human being. Even when his art was getting some notice, he was unable to travel to England for a solo art exhibition due to possibly not having enough money in his bank account, or his Tibetan refugee passbook.
Gyurmey’s work also ‘secretly’ weaves Tibetan and Indian symbols and proverbs into it, such as the monkey-ass red faces symbolising Tibetan ‘shame’ and ‘shyness’ when doing ‘naughty’ forbidden things behind the two mountains – a place where people secretly went to hang out, smoke, meet their foreign girlfriends and so on. There are also risque and controversial paintings, such as Blessed (2022) featuring the face of the 14th Dalai Lama, meat and his tulku father in the pose of famous yogi, Milarepa, and Crime With Mother (2021) that deals with the inner conflict the child Gyurmey felt at her buying and eating forbidden buffalo meat in India. For me, the latter artwork is one of the strongest, and most profound and brave paintings in Gyurmey’s works. Dealing with honesty, killing animals, ‘sacred cows’, religious beliefs and inner turmoil/conscience and transgressing those beliefs.
I asked Gyurmey what he thought about the idea of a culturally and ethnically pure Tibetan-ness and he told me he was not a purist in that sense, but like all great artists someone who sees (an appreciates) the natural richness, beauty, vitality and aesthetic qualities of all the inter-cultural influences that organically and naturally make us who we are as unique individuals, but also as human beings, especially in these cross-cultural and eclectic times of internet and mass social media.
In these ways, Gyurmey also challenges, inspires and motivates Tibetans of all ages and social backgrounds (and those who know and support them) to re-think and re-invent social and culturally conservative, homogenous ideas of being ‘blessed’, racial purity, patriarchal and religious culture, combined with the stifling Orientalist, romantic notions of their Euro-Anglo-American ‘friends’, which also keep them in that ‘straitjacket’ of what is a ‘good’ Tibetan in exile growing up in a Buddhist culture. His art visually expresses a voice and mind that speaks also to individual freedom of expression, speech and identity rather than only political freedom. Demonstrating that such creativity is alive and well in Tibetan exile art. For example, where are the Bhutanese artists dealing with such ‘challenging’ topics? Like the Indian contemporary artists who inspire him, Gyurmey clearly deserves greater recognition and international art exhibitions in places like London and New York.
When we met, Gyurmey wore a sweater that said ‘I like boring things’, which he told me was an Andy Warhol quote (Warhol’s pop art became so influential in the 20th Century and whose prophecy that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes appears to have come true with Tiktok and Instagram reels). However, Gyurmey’s work is anything but boring and brings colour and imagination to the seemingly mundane life growing up as a naughty Tibetan boy in exile, dealing with eating forbidden meat, mixing so-called ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ things, inter-racial/ethnic relationships and Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana iconography with stunning visuals, colours, passion and energy, creating something uniquely Tibetan but also globally relevant in a way that crosses all cultural and spiritual boundaries. Hence, the reason why the Matisse quote about courage and creativity seems more apt. On the other hand, it also reminded me of the famous Tibetan Buddhist master (and artist-poet) Chogyam Trungpa who spoke of accepting and appreciating ‘cool boredom’ as an essential part of the journey to full awakening.
As Gyurmey explained, buffalo meat was banned in the state Himachal Pradesh because of the ‘sacred cow’ Hindu ideology, and many Buddhists (including Tibetans) regard meat-eating as sacrilegious, impure and cruel (with good reasons). The term ‘sacred cow’ is also used metaphorically in English to refer to an idea, custom, or institution held to be above criticism due to social or religious pressure and norms. So, in more ways than one, Gyurmey tells and tackles, in a highly creative, direct and indirect, courageous and humorous way, the stories, influence and power of the ‘sacred cows’ in his own culture and community.
Music? G Tashi’s DTown , a Tibetan rap ode to Dharamsala. Also, one of Gyurmey’s paintings, Crime With My Mother, references a song Boulevard of Dreams, by the US punk-group Green Day, which he told me was one of his favourite songs. As the lyrics say: “I walk a lonely road, The only one that I have ever known, Don’t know where it goes But it’s home to me, and I walk alone…”
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 27th February 2023.
INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST, TENZIN GYURMEY
‘Behind the Two Mountains’ at The Other Space Art Gallery and Cafe (21st February 2023)
Early artistic influences – tulku and artist father and learning about art at school
Adele Tomlin: Tell me about your father and his influence on you as an artist.
Tenzin Gyurmey: My father is a tulku, called Tulku Trogyel, recognised by the 16th Karmapa, he stayed at Rumtek with the Karmapa. So his background was very religious and he was trained in thangka painting. My father is retired now and not painting anymore. He is fully dedicated to religious practice. From childhood he told me many Buddhist stories, that was the environment I grew up in.
I went to Lower TCV in Dharamsala until class 10, that was when I learnt about modern education, how the world works and so on. That time I was also drawing a bit too, due to the influence of my father and also other people expected me to draw well because of my father.
My father did not study art, he was self-taught, when he was 13 years old he came from Tibet, and was quite young. He is from Riwoche, Kham. He has a close connection with the 16th Karmapa and he also visited the 17th Karmapa once when he came from Tibet to India. My father is a tulku, and his father is a lama, and my grandfather and so on, so he had an expectation that I might be a Rinpoche too, and he had a great expectation when he met the 17th Karmapa that he would recognise me as one, but I was not. So, he was a bit disappointed (laughs).
First, he stayed two years around the borders of India at a place called Pemakod. After that, my father’s sister was in India as his family had given the daughter to another family on the way to India as a bride. So he wanted to find his sister and meet her and then they settled in Himachal Pradesh with his sister’s family and my family.
AT: Where did you go to school in India and study art?
TG: First, I went to Lower TCV, I was around 6 then, I am now 36 years old. and was there for around 13 years as a boarder and everything was new for me there. As for my experience in learning until class 9, I was not really interested in studies so much. I do not know why. I was more interested in bunking off classes and so on [laughs]. I was pushed up because of my age not because I passed the exams. So, by that time I did not think I had learned much. By class 10 I had to study everything from class 6 to class 9 to catch up.
We had an art teacher, but he was not like a fine arts teacher, yet a lot of my inspiration also came from him because he was a very good painter. I don’t remember his name, we called him Gen la. He was doing modern and realistic art and I was inspired by him, because until then I had not really seen much modern art, so I was seeing it for the first time and it was very exciting. The most brilliant TCV students get sent to the TCV Selaqui school, and all the best teachers too. As he was the best art teacher he was sent to Selaqui, so I was unable to continue studying with him. All the students who went there were good at studying but not at art. I don’t know why the art teacher was sent there. I called him Gen la, that’s why I cannot remember his name.
AT: Were there any other formative art influences?
TG: In class 5 we had an assembly in which one student will read the latest news of the world, so in that assembly I heard that the Picasso painting called ‘Boy with the Pipe’ sold for millions of dollars, and as I was doing art and interested in it, and I was like ‘wow, I never knew art could be that expensive’. This was a new idea for me that work could be sold for those prices. I wondered what that painting was like to be worth so much money, and I started studying Picasso’s art and abstract art.
I always went to the library at the Lower TCV school in Dharamsala but they didn’t have any artbooks, so I tried to find books about contemporary art but they did not have any. So, I asked the library teacher to point me out books about artists I was interested in, and they always pointed me towards the encyclopedia. From that, I read about Picasso and his history and from that I learnt more about contemporary art.
AT: Other than Picasso, what other artists did you really like?
TG: I also liked Salvador Dali. I didn’t really like Picasso’s art so much at that time because I did not really understand it, but I really liked Dali’s artwork.
AT: When I saw your art, I felt like you are the first Tibetan surrealist painter, as I had not seen any other Tibetan doing this kind of work, do you know of any others?
TG: There is one Tibetan artist, Sonam Nyendrag from Tibet, his work is surrealistic.
AT: There is also the traditional Tibetan thangka art element in your style, right?
TG: Yes, that comes from my father because before I went to school, all the drawings I saw were my father’s. He taught me how to draw, so my drawing lines are like thangka paintings.
Karma intervenes: from leaving school, to studying science then art in Delhi, and a divination from a lama
AT: When did you first start studying art at college?
TG: When I got to class 9 I didn’t do much art because I was more focused on studies as I had to pass the class 10 Board exam. When I started seriously studying at school, then I got the first position in class, and I was very happy and took the science option. I do not know why I chose that, and some teachers told me it was a very tough subject and I had just started studying it a year before, so they said I would breakdown if I went to Upper TCV to do science. I chose it but it really helped me learn how to study regularly and be punctual, and that gave me an idea of momentum and it is difficult for artists to have that.
So after that, I came to Delhi to study genetic engineering, but I did not get a place because my percentage was not high enough and I was also late.
AT: Why were you late?
TG: Genetic engineering was a very new subject at that time and I asked my science teacher about that and she said if you do that you need to do biology and maths. My maths teacher said no you don’t need to take biology. So, I did not know what to take and I was a bit lost in Delhi and so I became late and could not take it. So, I had one year in Delhi with nothing to do. Then, my sister suggested I was good at art and to study art for one year.
AT: Was your sister also interested in art?
My younger sister was better than me in drawing and art but also good at studies, so her schooling went into that and she lost interest in art. In our community, the students that get good marks are the most appreciated, that is why art and artists are considered lower because they are not seen as good in studies. If you do not have a good community support it is difficult to do art. I was always very different and a bit weird. I speak strangely and my habits and ideas were always seen as a bit off.
AT: Yes, in English we say a bit eccentric, because to be a good artist one has to be a bit eccentric as you are trying to create something new. Where did you study in Delhi?
TG: I went to Delhi College of Art, which was the best college for art at that time. I went there to study modern and realistic art. I thought art college was just for painting and drawing, but there are many different subjects like applied arts, sculpture and so on. So, I was a bit lost and did not know what to study. I went to my father and asked him to do a divination/Mo about what to study.
My mother went to see a great lama who was supposed to be very accurate in Mo, and she asked him if I should study painting or applied arts. He told her that if I did painting then I will not survive commercially and be doomed. So, when my father heard my mother say this, he told me not to rely on the Mo, to just do whatever I felt like doing. So, now I always think there is some insecurity about my future because of that Mo. When I do painting I work harder. The lama was saying that if I did painting I would not be able to get food and live and so on and will be financially broke.
AT: Has it come true yet?
TG: No, it does not appear to have done so.
AT: So maybe your father the tulku was right? [laughs]
TG: Maybe, yes.
Painting on woven taupe material (Drochag-bhureh) from US sacks donated to Tibetan refugees
AT: How was the art college experience?
TG: The college was very eye-opening, we had to have an easel, canvas and brushes, and I realised how expensive art materials are. That is how my idea of painting on this drochag bhureh (woven tarpaulin sacks) arose. I am used to this fabric. In my family, there is this kind of USAID sack made from it on which is written ‘from the USA’. My mother would tell me that we are refugees and that is why we get this sack from the USA. It was a symbol of being a refugee. In every exile settlement you will find this material, drochag (tarp), because they put tsampa in it, for making loofahs and dustbins and so on. They used it in many ways. Now they say you cannot find it.
So, after Delhi Art School I started to use this tarp sack material because the canvases and so on are very expensive. This is my way of doing the portrait and colouring. I like the texture for scratching and transferring the colours. When I do a painting, I pour the water on the painting and rub it like clothes and I want the colour to be a bit faded and scratched. It gives harmony to all the colours. With that tarp material it comes naturally, because the colour does not stick so well on that.
It gave me a sense of performance art too, because when you put the colour and then some part of it is left in the original, and some part is on the woven tarp, which I use to make another artwork. It is like a part of my journey from Himachal to Dharamsala and meeting different people. Now my friends are going abroad, and we always learn something in a new community and some part is always left behind too and we carry a new kind of culture and bring it to another space. So transferring colour from one material to another, is kind of symbolic like that, it is beautiful.
AT: It is very beautiful. You are not afraid to be eclectic and bring other cultures into your art. You keep your Tibetan culture and identity but you are not conservative and traditional in thinking everything has to be totally pure, in Tibetan, tsangma tsangkyang, right? Culture can be richer, organic and more alive when it has more influences and not totally pure or mono-cultural. What is your thinking about that?
TG: Yes, it is like bringing all the elements of life together, that we are all the same. I think it comes from experience. When I first came to art college, I was also very purist like that. At that time, I was doing mainly abstract art and it was kind of dark. When I see my artwork from that time, it was very intense and dark. Many people did not like it, and I was also not in a great mood during that time period. Suddenly, I started accepting other things into my life and became more extrovert, talking to people and that is how I managed to bring new stuff in my paintings. So I was doing abstract but also surreal style art together.
My artworks were not working or selling, so I moved into illustration for story books, which was paid work. That time, I knew how to connect with the audience via the artworks. In illustration, you cannot do whatever you want, you need to convey the story and convince them. From that I learnt how to tell stories through art. After that, I started telling stories about my own background and experiences as a child and tried to express them through my artworks. So, my whole art practice changed and it became more about the stories and realistic in its approach, about how to curate those stories into artworks.
Working as an illustrator to painting big pieces and having first solo art exhibition
AT: When did you decide to paint some bigger pieces?
TG: I was doing my own paintings part-time, not for work or a career, but for its own sake, for my love of it. That time I started doing it on the tarp material, as I don’t have a lot of money to buy canvas and I had some leftover colours, so I bought a sack for 40 INR and started painting and doodling a bit. Then, one day a Tibetan artist called Tsering Sherpa [see his website here], who is a senior artist came to Delhi and he wanted to meet me and hang around Delhi together.
AT: How did Tsering Sherpa find out about you?
TG: When I was doing more serious art, he came to my studio once. He did not like my work then, I think. So later, he came to hang out and then in the evening he wanted to stay in my room and chill out there. Then, he saw the paintings in my room and he asked me if I had made them and told me my work was very unique. They were not supposed to be artworks, I was just doodling around, but he told me that he had seen so many paintings in his life yet mine were very unique and he told me to continue with it. I was quite stunned but also very happy.
He was also self-taught, and was a thangka painter. Later, he became interested in contemporary art and he started an art gallery in Nepal [the Windhorse Gallery] and his studio is there. He told me that he would give me a space for showing my works in his gallery in Nepal. So I started working on some art and participated in two solo shows there and it was very successful. He told me that many people were interested in buying my works, and he gave me another solo show and bought one painting of mine. They were selling for about 60 000 INR (600 GBP).
AT: At that time did you start to think I can be a professional artist and make money from the art?
TG: I was still nervous about this and not sure. Then he gave me a solo show and that was very successful and that is how it started. Then I showed some of my artworks in Dharamsala.
Commercially, I then became more stable due to the art shows, and this gave me hope. Before I met Tsering Sherpa I was supposed to get a show in Liverpool connected to Liverpool University, but my visa was rejected at that time. I do not know why, I was supposed to show my bank account balance and some people thought that it was not high enough and that was why it was rejected [laughs]. As our passport is a refugee document, it is more difficult for us to travel than others.
AT: Do you get support from other Tibetan artists in the community as well?
TG: Yes, very much. I got huge support from the senior artists. For example, Tsering Sherpa gave me a show and some gave me ideas about how to make artworks commercially. Some Tibetan writers buy my works and support me in different ways.
AT: The Tibetan calligraphy artist, Jamyang Dorjee, who did the artwork for my new book of the Yum Chenmo, is based in New York and started his artistic production and training after he retired in his 60’s, which is very inspiring. There are many great examples of people who came into art later in life, such as Paul Gaugin. What do you think about that and ageism?
TG: The timing when something will happen for you is not certain. Especially in art, it can happen any time, years after working. Matisse was also a doctor previously. Art can strike you any time and someone can be an artist any time. Age is not a barrier, it is a relative thing.
Philosophical views on art
AT: Let us discuss your philosophy about art. What do you see as the purpose of art?
TG: When I do the work, I am not looking for any particular purpose. I am trying to make new kinds of stories and how those stories can translate into a different culture. So, in my works there is a particular culture and story, that has been mixed with another culture, which I experienced. There are many different ways of looking at those stories, and that always interests me. Before, I became an artist I was more an art lover, so I can look at my artwork for two or three days and that gives me satisfaction.
AT: Do you think art has to inspire on some level though? Or provoke in some way?
TG: My intention was not only to inspire people, but they did. I also have been inspired by works of art, such as Michelangelo’s works, Subodh Gupta, an Indian contemporary pop artist, Tsering Sherpa, Jitish Kallat and also, Modligiani and Mark Rothko. Gupta makes sculptures with Indian utensils. Tsering Sherpa is an inspiration and also like an older brother for me.
AT: What do your parents think of this? You mentioned some initial resistance.
TG: At first they were a little concerned about my commercial status and how I would survive in the world. After that, they are not so bothered. They do not really understand what I paint, unless I paint in some realistic way. They are more into religious art but when I explain the process and why I did that, they love the concept of the art more than the visuals.
AT: On your sweater it says ‘I like boring things’ which you said is a quote by the famous American pop artist, Andy Warhol. He also said something like ‘art is for art’s sake’ so it is not necessary for it to have a purpose or to please. Some people think that ‘no, art should inspire and be beneficial in some way.’ Yet, there is an idea in conceptual art that art is art, whether it is good or bad. What do you think of that?
TG: I don’t know what art is for. There are many different styles and names for art. I am just interested in creating something new for people and giving them the sense of the possibilities of creating something new and to change something for the better. I am inspired by that. For me, whether what I do is art or not, I do not know.
Daydreaming (2022) – doodling and being endorsed by senior artist, Tsering Sherpa
TG: This Daydreaming piece is from the first solo art exhibition hosted by Tsering Sherpa at his gallery in Nepal. He also bought this painting from me. This was the one I told you about that I was just doodling, I did not know whether it was art or not. Tsering Sherpa’s painting is also represented in it.
Blessed (2021) – living in one room as a family, being criticised as an artist and the turmoil of meat-eating
AT: You said some of your art had been criticised. What was the main issue people had with it?
TG: Some of these paintings [being shown at The Other Space] are from the previous solo exhibition, ‘I Shouldn’t be Here’. For example, this painting called Blessed, some people did not like it. It is a portrait of my father and I in our house during my childhood days. During that time, our family social status was not good, we didn’t have the privilege of having separate bedrooms and kitchen. Everything was in one room. We didn’t have the privilege of a separate prayer roo༂m/shrine either. So, it was very difficult to put things in their hierarchical place and here is depicted meat and HH Dalai Lama’s picture together in that same room. We could not place them separately. That period was very pure and blessed for me. I really miss that time. This portrait is of that time.
AT: Did some people find it offensive because you put the meat with the Dalai Lama; they think you are making a political or vegetarian statement about that?
TG: Yes, and some people have a problem because I use a lot of red in my paintings. It is very red. My father is in a Milarepa gur/song pose and it was my birthday so he is carrying a piece of cake.
AT: It is like a meat cake, that is one thing about Tibetan society is that there are mixed views about the vegetarianism in connection with Buddhism and the meat eating. There is a growing movement on vegetarianism in contemporary Tibet too [see more on that here]. The 17th Karmapa is also vegetarian, so maybe people saw this painting as being critical of Tibetans and their habit of meat-eating?
TG: Yes, there is also another painting I did here which is also about the meat [Crime With My Mother, see below]. Here in Himachal we are not supposed to eat buff [cow] meat.
AT: Do you eat meat?
TG: Yes, I do, but in Himachal buff meat is banned. So, we would have to go to another Indian state to get that meat.
AT: Why do you eat meat if your father follows the 17th Karmapa [laughs]?
TG: Yes, because from childhood I grew up eating meat. So this painting is the story about that. Whenever my mother and I would go to buy meat, I was very uncomfortable with it all because in the shop you see the animals being killed, and my whole Buddhist background is telling me not to eat it. That the deities will punish me and so on, and I was a child that time.
AT: How did you deal with the criticism you got about the artworks? Did it hurt you?
TG: It did not hurt me, I already know that whatever I do, there will always be people who like and dislike it. If you are creating something new, a sign that you are doing something is when people criticize you, because you are provoking something. It clashes with their long-held ideas and I am questioning it. Obviously, the people will not like that and that is natural. I did not give much thought to their ideas.
AT: How did your family and parents react to it? In English, we say the ‘sacred cow’ is that which you cannot criticise or challenge, and in Tibetan Buddhism one of the ‘sacred cows’ is the 14th Dalai Lama, right?
TG: My mother and father know me, so they know my intentions and they never questioned my artistic ideas, they did advise me to be careful because some people are very sensitive and so on, and that people have different ideas and perceptions. So, I am OK with that, because I have read about so many artists who struggled and still are struggling, it is kind of natural for an artist to go through that process.
AT: Do you feel the need to explain your works though, when people criticise you?
TG: I do not explain myself, but if some people ask then I will. If they do not ask me and just criticise, then I do not think about it or engage with it. First, I explain, then if they stick to their ideas, I let them be. It is a waste of time to continue to try and engage them.
Behind The Two Mountains- visual tales of a place of forbidden pleasures and monkey-ass faces
TG: The ‘two mountains’ is the nickname of the place where Tibetans would go to do whatever they felt like. For example, if a Tibetan is dating a foreign woman, they cannot hold hands publicly and so on in Mcleod Ganj because people would judge them, so they would go behind the two mountains and have their relationship. It is a small place behind the Upper TCV school. There is a small river and it is a quiet place, I would go to smoke and do things that society does not accept, so we did those things behind the two mountains. So, the exhibition behind the two mountains is a series of artworks about what I did there. That is the concept.
In these paintings are representations of myself and also red monkey-asses. In Tibetan culture, if someone is very shy, we say their face is red like a monkey’s ass. People are too concerned about what others think and feel shame and become red-faced when they do certain things, especially as people think Tibetans are very pure and so on. I symbolised that visually with the monkey-ass (piu’i kub) faces in the artworks.
AT: So, no one would know this outside of Tibetan culture.
TG; Yes, I like those Tibetan sayings and proverbs and symbolic gestures.
Tulku (2022) – seeking escape from social expectations
AT: Why is this painting called Tulku? [Tulku in Tibetan means a recognised reincarnate lama]
TG: My father is a tulku, so people would always compare me with him. Whenever I did anything bad, people always said “your father is a tulku, so how could you do that?” So, I would find a secret place where I could hide from societal expectations.
Secrets of Peacock Beauty (2022) – thinking of ‘foreign’ citizenship
TG: This artwork is about the time I was thinking of applying for Indian citizenship and it is considered controversial to be applying for such citizenship if one is Tibetan. This thought of doing this was in my mind for a long time, and about what other Tibetans might think if I did that. That is why it comes into the concept of Behind the Two Mountains.
The spinning wheel in the bottom right, is related to the idea of making one’s own clothes, in the way that Mahatma Gandhi did to protest the British occupation of India, by spinning and weaving his own cotton and clothes. The two boys playing on the right were when we wanted to be like Indian Bollywood stars as there were not any Tibetan movie stars we knew about.
Farewell (2022) – Indian mythology and being the ‘black sheep’ in the Tibetan community
TG: The painting Farewell is about when I was living in Dharamsala, during that time I was very mischievous and my friends in Dharamsala were like hippies. When we were hanging out in Mcleod Ganj, some people would say that we are making Tibetans look like garbage/dirt, that we are a black mark on the community. Smoking and hanging around not doing much. So when I left Dharamsala, I thought I would never come back there again. This is the memory of that.
Here I represent myself a bit like Ravan, who is from an Indian mythological story. Ravan is the opposite of Ram, and his most rivalled enemy. These people are always like the black marks on their society and they keep growing, so I am representing myself a bit like Ravan in this painting.
Ramalug (2022) – challenging forced ideas of ‘purity’
TG: Ramalug means neither a sheep or a goat, a mixed animal. As I told you, when we were dating a foreigner or non-Tibetan, they would say that our baby/child is ramalug, not pure breed.
AT: There is a sense that mixed race Tibetans don’t belong, like black sheep we say. What do you think about that? It is this purity thing right?
TG: I seriously don’t know what is meant by ‘pure’ here. I think it is overthinking when they talk about mixed race people as not being ‘pure’. This artwork is making fun of that whole thing. Ramalug is a fun word and being ‘ramalug’ is a very interesting place to be in. When we met foreigners it was a fun experience, they are from different cultures and communities and we can share ideas and so on.
AT: So the purity culture wants to keep everything the same right? Again this question of what is Tibetan-ness and purity comes up. Some people think culture is about language, or proverbs, experiences and so on. So even a mixed race Tibetan if they grow up in Tibetan school and around Tibetans, have that culture and language, and so some think that is what makes someone ‘Tibetan’. What do you think of that?
TG: Identity is a very individual thing. All people have their own identities, what they have experienced, seen and so on. Purity culture is like forcing people to come into one category, like this is Tibetan, this is Indian. They are forcing people to be in a homogenous group and culture, but it is not.
AT: Yes, and who is the spokesperson for that ‘pure’ group or culture too, that is the question right?
TG: Yes, where has this idea of a singular national identity come from? For me it is a rather stupid and narrow way to think.
The symbolism of the painting is the foreign girl on top of the shoulders of the man, which is interesting and the water is trying to make it fun. As for the skulls, I use skulls when I am thinking about basic and fundamental reality and things, it always comes to skulls.
AT: Is that because of death?
TG: It is because of death and reality, in the Buddhist view, the skull symbolises death and reality.
A Crime With Mother (2022) – eating forbidden meat in India
For me, this artwork is one of the strongest, and most profound and brave paintings in Gyurmey’s works. Dealing with honesty, killing animals, ‘sacred cows’, religious beliefs and inner turmoil/conscience and transgressing those beliefs. I asked Gyurmey to explain it a little:
TG: As I mentioned before, this painting A Crime With My Mother is when my mother and I went to buy the buffalo meat near the Himachal border [cow/buffalo meat are illegal in HImachal Pradesh]. So, when we went to buy meat there I was always scared of Ashang Chogyal, [Tibetan mythological figure who punishes people for the negative actions when they die] and that he would punish us, and when I was a child I was scared of what would happen after death. When we bought the meat and came back, I was scared of the Himachal police. So, I experienced a lot of mental turmoil, the spiritual fear of the gods and punishment, and fear about the reality of the police.
AT: In the painting on the boy’s top it says Boulevard of Broken Dreams, American Idiot, what does that mean?
TG: When I was growing up it was a Green Day song, and it was one of my favourite songs.
[Author’s note: In Buddhism, all animals are considered ‘sacred’ and Buddha taught should not be killed or eaten willingly for food, unless the animal has died naturally, one is very sick or starving, or a monastic is offered it as food when they are ‘begging’ for food with alms bowls.]
Lockdown (2020) – dealing with laziness
TG: This painting Lockdown was done during the Covid lockdown time and I felt as if I was becoming the ‘god of laziness’. So there is the sloth, junk culture and just enjoying myself. I just did not feel like doing much.
Champions (2021) – contrasting worldly and spiritual and female empowerment
TG: This is from the series in the exhibition ‘I Shouldn’t Be Here’. It is about a Tibetan woman who is a boxer and she did not get much exposure and is my friend’s neighbour. We always saw her but we did not communicate, so I tried to represent her in this painting. The man above her represents the Tibetan yogi who is flying in the sky above her, and she is in the realistic world where we win things, and above her is the spiritual world.
AT: Why did she not get enough exposure?
TG: It could be because she was in Delhi and there were not many Tibetans. Also, she did boxing which is not so popular and she is breaking boundaries and I found it inspiring that she did that. I think her name is Tenzin Pema, she ་won the second place in Thai Boxing in an international competition.
In his ‘Artist Statement’ on his website, Gyurmey explains that:
“To me, this material bears testament to the way the Tibetan diaspora has planted themselves in a new culture, and undergone changes in their own culture. Through these works, I examine and celebrate the space we have created for ourselves as Tibetans in India.”
Voice of Tibet interview with Tenzin Gyurmey (November 2022)
Windhorse Gallery, Kathmandu Nepal
Portraits from the Tibetan DIaspora (Kathmandu Post, October 2022)
Seeing And Revering Nature With Love: Trees Of Dharamsala By Nicholas Vreeland
Cool Boredom by Chogyam Trungpa (Tricycle Magazine, 2017)
MEAT IS MURDER: ‘Tibetan Buddhist Vegetarianism: Ancient and Modern’ compiled teachings by 17th Karmapa
Interview with Indian contemporary artist, Subodh Gupta