Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting of deities traditionally involves rigorous adherence to traditional design principles, all carefully gridded onto the canvas, to create imagery for meditation.
In Tsherin Sherpa’s version—included in the exhibition “Spirits” at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum from Feb. 4 to May 29, 2023—the deities become strutting pop divas (one painting is directly inspired by Lady Gaga) and swaggering influencers. Like Sherpa, who was born in Nepal and emigrated to Oakland, California, they seem to have joined the diaspora, leaving their homeland and holy realms for this America of consumerism.
“I actually tried to play with these same icons in a different way. Maybe humanizing them. Mabye making them less iconic,” Sherpa said in a 2019 interview for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “…When you go to a new place, you try to bring your culture, your identity, your background and sometimes it’s very important to preserve this family or cultural tradition that you have been handed down for so many years and try to preserve it in a minute way, whatever you have, and then pass it down to the next generation.”
Here Sherpa’s precisely painted figures are still surrounded by shimmering gold leaf, but they have halos of emogis and corporate logos, they blow bubble gum bubbles.
The exhibition, which was organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in partnership with the Peabody Essex Museum, doesn’t include traditional art by Tibetans as context. But it does feature ink drawings by Robert Beer—studies of varying skulls, flames, flowers, clouds, gesturing hands.
“In 1968, Beer, a self-taught artist from Wales, experienced a major mental and emotional crisis that would last several years,” organizers write. “In search of spiritual meaning, he left for India and Nepal, where he immersed himself in the study of Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting with several of the greatest practitioners living at the time. Beer spent the next 40 years producing hundreds of line drawings of Indo-Tibetan deities and symbols.”
Sherpa comes from a family of traditional Tibetan artists: “My dad was trained by his uncle.” When he was around age 13, he began training with his father. Inspiration came from stories his grandmother told of protective deities who watch over Tibet and its people.
There’s politics in Sherpa’s paintings, but it tends to be coded. He renders the deity Mahakala with a body made of hundreds of tiny photos of the Tibetan diaspora. “Peace Out” from 2013, shows a figure with its hands up to its ears making what could be read as peace signs. In fact, it evokes the gesture the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who lives in India in exile from Chinese rule of Tibet, made when South African authorities refused him entry to that country to attend celebrations of the 80th birthday of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A museum sign explains that the Dalai Lama meant the gesture as horns to indicate that “some Chinese officials portray him as a demon.”