|An untitled mixed-media sculpture from 2012 by Mr. Gyatso. Credit Photograph by Jerome Favre, courtesy of the artist and Pearl Lam Galleries|
Mr. Gyatso, 53, whose work mixes Buddhist iconography and pop images like colorful children’s stickers, hoped that this exhibition would be a possible first step toward his ultimate goal: “My wish, someday, is to have a similar solo show in China, or even Lhasa,” he said, referring to the Tibetan capital. “I really want to show what I’ve done to my hometown.”
But the prospects of having a similar high-profile exhibition in mainland China, where there are more government restrictions than in Hong Kong, are limited, said the gallery owner, Pearl Lam. “Because of the censorship, it may be very difficult because of the Buddhist images — maybe more so than the commentary,” said Ms. Lam, who also has galleries in Shanghai and Singapore. “We're talking about it.”
“It’s very special to have a Tibetan artist,” she added. “He’s one of the few Tibetan artists known internationally.”
For decades, Tibetan art was mostly associated with antique collectibles, particularly the religious scrolls known as thangkas. But over the past decade, contemporary artists, like Mr. Gyatso, have been slowly gaining a foothold.
Mr. Gyatso’s following comes in part from his dedication to detail, a result of his training in traditional techniques like Chinese court painting (which he studied in Beijing) and the high craft of making thangkas (which he learned in India). “It’s very precise work done on silk, with lots of line painting,” he said of creating a thangka. “There are very strict rules to follow, especially if you paint a Buddha.”
Today he gives religious symbols an irreverent twist. The Hong Kong show included several Buddhas, beheaded and covered in stickers. “His head is supposed to be stuck in the wall,” Mr. Gyatso said, explaining to a gallery assistant. “The Buddha’s so frustrated, he’s banging into a wall.” A mantra written in Tibetan script was paired with pop-culture figures like Hello Kitty and a cartoon panda.
“Maybe some people find it disrespectful, considering it is a holy phrase,” he said. “I am fortunate that Buddhists are so tolerant.”
Other text-based artworks use terms trending on Chinese news sites, like “Pollution” and “Gutter Oil,” which refers to a food-safety scandal. There are also U.S.-themed pieces like “Drone,” embellished with rainbow sparkles, American flag bunting and a hot-pink butterfly.
“Historically, Chinese artists used poetry — poetry as commentary,” Ms. Lam said. “He’s doing this in a contemporary context.”
Mr. Gyatso, who was born in Lhasa, spent his childhood in the midst of the Cultural Revolution.
“I grew up not really knowing my home culture,” he said. “School was very strict. They were very focused on Communist ideological training. And no subjects included Tibetan culture or religion. It was forbidden to practice, or even learn about that.”
He lived in a state housing complex because his parents worked in the government, so his main link to the past was through a grandmother.
“I grew up in two neighborhoods,” he said. “When I was with my parents, we were in an isolated compound, with high walls and a gate. When I was with my grandmother, it was in a very Tibetan setting, near the old town and the old temple in Lhasa.”
In 1980, Mr. Gyatso was chosen by scouts from a Beijing university for minority students, which is how he ended up studying art in the capital. At the time, China was just beginning to open up to the world.
“Outside of school — gosh — it was buzzing with Western exhibitions, books, cinema,” he said. “After a while, they started closing things down. But while it lasted, it was amazing.”
Back in Lhasa, he started showing works in sweet-tea houses, which play a similar role in Tibetan culture as cafes in Paris or pubs in London. He and his friends founded the Sweet Tea collective in 1985. “For the first time, we realized that art could be shown and sold in a nongovernment setting,” he said. “In those days, there were no private or independent galleries. In Lhasa, there was nothing.”
Mr. Gyatso left China for the first time in 1992, when he moved to Dharamsala, the Indian home to the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan exile community. “There were books on Tibetan history and culture I could not find back home. I was tracing my roots,” he said.
After three years at the mountainside retreat, Mr. Gyatso moved to the booming art scene in London, where he studied at Central Saint Martins on scholarship, and then at the Chelsea School of Art and Design. In the 2000s, he started collaborating with Fabio Rossi of Rossi & Rossi, a family-owned London gallery. While Mr. Rossi no longer works with Mr. Gyatso, he continues to promote his contemporaries.
“In 2005 in London, I put on what was probably the first commercial show of contemporary Tibetan art in the West, including 15 artists from Lhasa, plus Gonkar,” Mr. Rossi said. “It was like throwing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples.” So far, Tibetan contemporary art is still producing ripples and not waves. But innovative Tibetan artists are making their way into more prominent exhibitions. Over the summer, the Hong Kong branch of Rossi & Rossi showed “Impermanence,” featuring 16 Tibetan artists.
In September, the Queens Museum in New York opened an exhibition of contemporary Tibetan artists called “Anonymous,” which runs until January.
Earlier this year, Mr. Gyatso, who is currently based in New York, and a contemporary, Tenzing Rigdol, were included in the Metropolitan Museum’s largely historic show, “Tibet and India: Buddhist Traditions and Transformations.”
Kurt Behrendt, an assistant curator at the Met’s Department of Asian Art, explained the choice to use Mr. Gyatso’s modern take on the Buddha.
“The large ‘Dissected Buddha’ collage by Gonkar Gyatso was included because it so effectively links the contemporary moment with the longstanding tradition of representing the Buddha,” Mr. Behrendt wrote by email. “By using iconography that is accessible and immediate — here, for example, the Buddha’s environment takes the form of a grid of Manhattan streets — Gonkar Gyatso is able to give his work great power.”