Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Karma Phuntsok--Tibetan Thangka Painting in Australia

Karma Phuntsok, a Tibetan-born artist now living in Australia, creates work that reflects this hybrid existence by using aspects of traditional Tibetan painting in new ways.  After fleeing Tibet with his family following what is referred to as the Tibetan Uprising of 1959, Karma Phuntsok eventually studied the traditional Thanka style of painting from a Thanka master in Nepal.  Since 1981 he has been living in Australia practicing his art. His application of traditional methods to new uses and settings is a reflection of the existence of the Tibetan culture in exile, forced to adapt to new settings while maintaining a cultural heritage and tradition.  In doing so, this art offers his audience a visual model of the mediation between two cultures, which serves a social function within the exiled Tibetan community in addition to its aesthetic purpose.

Guru Rinpoche, Karma Phutsok, 2001
Image reproduced with consent of artist.

In the image above, Karma Phuntsok has depicted the Guru Rinpoche arriving at Ayers Rock, an iconic Australian landmark. The Guru Rinpoche, otherwise known as Padmasambhava, is credited with the introduction of Vajrayna Buddhism into Tibet, and is shown here transmitting Buddhism into Australia. 

Guru Rinpoche differs from traditional Thanka, such as that shown below, in two ways. First, and most obviously, the traditionally depicted figure has been uprooted and now exists within a realistically rendered Australian landscape. The second and less obvious difference, at least to those unfamiliar with Thanka, is the non-central position of Rinpoche within the work.  In the traditional Chenrezig Thangka below, the figure is positioned centrally within a composition that is nearly symmetrical.  It depicts an ordered existence which creates harmony between Chenrezig and his setting. 
Chenrezig Thangka, Tibetan artist, 1700-1800, 
ink and colors on cotton, 28 1/8 x 20 3/8 in.
One can imagine the sense of harmony and stasis that would have been created in Guru Rinpoche if the Guru and Ayers Rock were depicted along one central vertical axis. Instead, the Guru has just arrived, with one tail of the cloud indicating the direction of his entrance. It doesn't simply represent the new existence of Tibetan Buddhists in Australia, but the nature of this existence. The Guru Rinpoche serves as a symbol of Tibetan Buddhism and its adherents, who like the Guru have just arrived in the new landscape of Australia.  Considering the balanced and ordered compositions of traditional Tibetan painting, the composition of Guru Rinpoche reveals that Buddhist culture has yet to harmoniously align itself with Australia while implying the eventual realization of this harmonious existence. 

The oppression of Tibet by China has partially dislocated Tibetan culture, forcing it to adapt to new settings.  Karma Phuntsok and other Tibetan artists outside Tibet reflect this in their art by applying traditional Tibetan styles to new uses. Though arising from unfortunate conditions, these innovations have created a new imagery and a new style of painting.  Considering the traditional training of artists such as Karma Phuntsok and the meditative and spiritual role of traditional Tibetan paintings, these new paintings serve as visual models of a negotiation with a new culture for their largely Buddhist audience, and as a locus for contemplation of this new existence.
Thanks to Karma Phuntsok for permission to reproduce Guru Rinpoche for this blog. 
More information about the artist and how to purchase his work is available on his website: http://www.karmaart.com/
The website of the Mechak Center for Contemporary Tibetan Art also includes images of Karma Phuntsok's work in addition to the work of other Tibetan artists. 

1 comment:

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