Born in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1968, Ang Tsherin Sherpa is the son of the renowned thangka artist Urgen Sherpa. Having spent many years living and working in the USA, he is once more based in his native country developing not only his own distinctive artistic style but also the art scene in Nepal as a whole. In 2022, Tsherin Sherpa was the first Nepali artist ever to be represented at the prestigious Venice Biennale and he has recently been appointed a trustee of the Rubin Museum of Art, New York. His new gallery, ‘Takpa’, a word-play on the Tibetan word ‘mitakpa’ or ‘impermanence’, is scheduled to open in Lazimpat, Kathmandu, in early March 2023.
A modern concrete box-type residential building on a suburban hillside to the far north of the Kathmandu Valley, flooded with the strong daylight coveted by painters, houses the studio of one of Nepal’s foremost contemporary artists. The location is easily accessible to repeat visitors, but baffling to first-timers: in this discrete way Ang Tsherin Sherpa protects himself from an endless flow of casual callers while warmly welcoming with an ingenuous smile those who, like myself, are determined to track him down, showing a genuine willingness to share an hour or two of his valuable time with them.
Just out of sight of the house and beyond the ridge in the middle distance graced by the silhouette of Kapan Monastery is Boudhanath, where Tsherin Sherpa was born into a mixed Tibetan-Nepali family. At a time when the border between Nepal and Tibet, running east to west along the Himalayas, was fluid and farmers could criss-cross it at will to find better grazing for their livestock, Ang Tsherin’s father, Urgen Sherpa, was born on the Tibetan side to a Tibetan mother and Nepali father. On the death of his father, Urgen moved to Nepal with his family, settling permanently in Boudhanath. Urgen Sherpa trained to be a thangka artist under the tutelage of several teachers, including his maternal uncles, and it was into this milieu that Tsherin Sherpa was born in 1968. His childhood in Boudha was surrounded by art and artists along with tales of the spirits lovingly and vividly narrated by his grandmother.
“Actually, my father thought it was quite difficult to make a living as a thangka painter,” recounts Tsherin Sherpa. “He wanted me to go and get an education as he hadn’t been to school. But I wasn’t very keen, I wasn’t very good at academic study. So when I was in about the ninth grade, he started teaching me to paint thangka. He trained me for about five years altogether. Simultaneously, I studied Buddhist philosophy and scripture at the nearby White Monastery.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, after a five-year apprenticeship with his father, Tsherin Sherpa turned his back on painting, returning to it only after spending three and a half years on a scholarship in Taiwan. Tsherin Sherpa explains his experience of and relationship with art at that point in his life.
“Art, especially traditional art, was so limited because Boudha in itself was very isolated and not integrated into Kathmandu City. There were no art galleries, so the culture of art consisted only of what I saw: souvenir shops and workshops. And also it wasn’t hip to be an artist. I was young and the community treated artists more like skilled workers, stone masons, or something like that.”
Going to live in the USA in 1998 was a pivotal moment in his life, with some unexpected revelations in store.
“When I first arrived in the US, I went to a museum…the same museum where I demonstrated [thangka painting] later,” Tsherin Sherpa recalls. “I paid US$10 for a ticket, which was quite expensive for me at that time. I go inside and what do I see but a huge thangka! I was like, ‘Oh! I paid US$10 to see this!?’ Then I looked around and saw all the catalogues and so on, and that is when it hit me. ‘Wow! This is an amazing tradition!’ People were appreciating it, wanting to see it. Then, when I started teaching,” he adds, “many artists also wanted to take classes with me to learn thangka skills.”
Tsherin Sherpa’s official website refers to his using his art ‘to investigate and explore his personal diasporic experiences,’ and, as we looked at a selection of his limited edition prints, I asked about this.
“When I was an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Centre, I was reflecting on my own practice and what needed to be done,” Tsherin Sherpa recounts. “Then I started thinking about the stories that my grandmother had told me about the spirits. And I saw all of these Himalayan people living in nuclear form in the West, trying to preserve a little bit of culture, a little bit of language, all within their nuclear family. So that is when I started making all my ‘Fragments’… these are all bringing out my diasporic experiences in my practice. To this whole big universe of the art world, what can I contribute as an individual who happens to come from this [Himalayan] region?”
‘Fragments’ refers to one of Tsherin Sherpa’s most well-known series, with not only the individual paintings being on multiple canvases, as in the tradition of diptychs and triptychs in the West, but also being composed of individual squares, like two-dimensional Rubik cubes. Perhaps the most striking in the series is ‘Seeds of Compassion,’ in which a childhood image of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is juxtaposed against a fragmented background of Tibetan Buddhism iconography.
“A limited edition print of this now hangs in His Holiness’s living room in Dharamshala,” states Tsherin Sherpa with a justifiable touch of pride.
It was as a consequence of his grandmother’s tales that Tsherin Sherpa’s own iconic creation, ‘Spirit’—and another series—was born. With a head that could be that of a bodhisattva or even a deity, the figure, who appears in both two- and three-dimensional works, is depicted squatting in underwear, blowing bubble-gum, or striking a pose reminiscent of Freddie Mercury.
And this raises the issue of ‘the dichotomy found where sacred and secular culture collide’, to quote again from the website. This is clearly a core concept in Tsherin Sherpa’s art, so I encouraged him to say more about it.
“You saw all the gold leaf in my works. What is gold? Gold is used on all religious artefacts, right? We see that all the time. And yet, at the same time, gold tends to have a monetary value…so again we are talking about economics, money. So religion and money are always intertwined. And that characteristic is very interesting for me. There is a work I created quite some time ago called ‘Derivative’. It juxtaposes a black Buddha head against a stock chart.” He pauses for the daringness of this to sink in. “So as a thangka painter, what I am supposed to do?” he asks rhetorically. “Thangka is a spiritual practice. But that wasn’t happening for me. My whole approach to painting thangka in California was based on, ‘I need to find a buyer, I need to sell this so I can pay for my rent, pay for my living, everything,’ so the spiritual thing was way, way beyond me.
“What is happening now,” he continues, “is that because of, shall we say, a little bit of exposure, appreciation, audience, I have less of a problem financially than before, and that gives me the opportunity to think wider, think broader, think deeper, and be conscious about what I can do as an artist. That changes everything. Thangka has become like a souvenir product so no one appreciates it. No matter how well you execute the work, the viewer cannot differentiate between what is the best and what is mediocre. And I met so many ex-thangka painters in the US who actually gave up art and were drivers for Uber or working at restaurants because the value is not there. So now how do we solve this situation? That is the challenge!”
Clearly, Tsherin Sherpa is not at all afraid of taking up this particular challenge. From the comments he made, his approach seems to be a multi-pronged attack with a single focus.
The first tactic is to reawaken awareness of and interest in art and bring it to a new audience, even if that means being unconventional.
“In the past, when the [Nepali] kings were commissioning monuments, temples, architectures, they were really appreciated as great art, created by great artisans. So how do we generate, regenerate, that type of excitement and appreciation for the heritage as well as for living artists?” he asks. “And at one point I was also thinking, ‘What is art for me? Is it just to paint a number of paintings, sell them, and just survive?’ It has to have a bigger purpose, right? If it doesn’t serve a purpose, there’s no point!
“Maybe you are familiar with [the Japanese brand] Comme des Garçons?” he continues. “I actually collaborated with them, with Junya Watanabe, the vice president of Comme des Garçons, along with several other artists.”
Browsing animatedly through his mobile’s photo gallery and showing with a broad smile the striking images he was looking for, he continues, “And just recently in Virginia I was working on streetwear…skateboards… with hip-hop artists. So again we are expanding, introducing art and culture to a wider audience.”
This seemed the right moment to refer to the controversial yeti mascots which he designed for the much-heralded Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign, aborted due to the COVID pandemic and worldwide lockdowns.
Tsherin Sherpa not only acknowledged himself to be their creator but also indicated that he has not yet done with yetis.
“And this is the latest one…Vodka!” he exclaims with glee, showing another image. The Yeti Distillery’s 8848 Rye Vodka, in a distinctive black bottle showcasing Tsherin Sherpa’s art, was launched in a limited edition of 30,000 bottles in September 2022. “Again we are reaching out to a new audience,” he stresses. “You don’t come to art galleries? Fine! We will bring art to you!”
Abhishek Shrestha, the managing director of the Yeti Distillery, is quoted online as saying, “As we were thinking about the launch of our new product, we wanted to do something different and meaningful. We decided to showcase the Nepali artist to bring attention to the evolving fine arts scene of our country.” It seems very much as if Tsherin Sherpa’s ‘strategic approach’ of involving young entrepreneurs in his mission, encouraging them to go to the Venice Biennale, not primarily to see his own exhibit but to experience first-hand being at the world’s leading art exhibition, is working.
But there was one hypothetical question that I had to pose: could it be said that he was prostituting his art in any way by doing this? Tsherin Sherpa made a spirited and perceptive rebuttal.
“I know exactly what you are saying. It is like when Brice Lee was introducing Kung Fu in the West, he was considered as a sellout. Similarly, when Tibetan Buddhism left Tibet and was being spread in the West for the first time, the purists were saying ‘Bad idea, bad idea!’ But look at it now!” Tsherin Sherpa states. “I was looking at the Buddhist philosophy, the ideology, and how it connects with so many people. And I was thinking that, through art, we can also do something like that, reach out to a global audience. It doesn’t have to be the elite who go to museums, but, as I was saying earlier, the hip-hop artists, the skateboarders….. But I have noticed one thing that is so funny,” he adds with a wry smile. “I made all the carpets [limited edition traditional hand-woven rugs] which are supposed to be on the floor, but now everyone is hanging them on their walls! Similarly the skateboards!”
He is quick to deny that this in any way defeats the object of producing such items.
“Any which way works for me! The idea is just to reach out to a newer audience, a different demographic, then initiate this conversation, this awareness. If I can manage to do this in a small way, that’s good.”
Walking around the house, it was not possible to ignore the presence of more than a few assistants—Tsherin Sherpa has ten altogether, including three young women—working for him. This is neither a new nor uncommon phenomenon. The use of assistants in ateliers dates back to the Renaissance era, when large-scale projects were relatively common, while the image of the solitary artist is largely inaccurate in the contemporary, market-driven art world. And these assistants act as the second-prong response to the challenge of reviving what he himself refers to as ‘the endangered Himalayan tradition.’
It was initially his growing success in the art world that led Tsherin Sherpa to decide to employ first one and then multiple assistants. However, he was ‘dumbstruck’, to use his own term, on finding that although they had the technical skills required for the work, they lacked any kind of in-depth knowledge of the subject matter they were painting.
“I asked, ‘Do you know why Green Tara is green?’ They had no idea. ‘Do you have any idea why we have to paint the lotus seed, the moon disc, the halo, the flower?’ None of them knew anything about this, they only knew how to apply two colours,” he recounts, resulting in a change in his approach.
“I am constantly looking for younger artists in their twenties or thirties who I can actually educate because at that time they still have that drive. So that is what I am trying to do…. In February, I am going to begin teaching these female artists and I am going to recruit more, younger artists. They have to be enthusiastic also, otherwise, there is nothing I can do.”
The classes he is arranging for the assistants, including those with a thangka artist who also teaches at the renowned Shechen Monastery in Boudhanath, are to be funded by the proceeds from his collaboration with the Yeti Distillery: the unconventional synergy is clearly working.
He is succinct on what he regards as ‘success’ with any one of his assistants. “First, they have to have enough skills. Secondly, whether thangka or contemporary, it doesn’t matter, if they can actually pass them down to a new generation, a new group of artists, then that would be a huge success. The idea is not for me to have a huge factory. It is not about that.”
Asked about his own ‘success’, Tsherin Sherpa comments, “The thing I am most proud of is being able to connect these dots… these are all very important dots. Nepal is a place where the economy is growing slowly. Even the art movement is growing, doing better. We have three art schools here, and the younger generation, the people coming up, are more exposed in terms of contemporary art. But how do I connect this group, this movement, with other art movements? We have traditional artists but unfortunately in their case, like my father’s generation, many are passing on. So how do we preserve their knowledge? So I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I know Western institutions like museums. Here in Nepal, I know the artists. So how can I bring them together so that this can be not just an individual but a collective effort?”
And his plans for the future are more about the Nepal art scene as a whole than personal ambition.
“For this kind of project to be on a bigger scale, we need a loud noise, like Venice [Biennale] was a big thing. I am in conversation with some very high-end brands for the carpet project, so if that happens, it will have a bigger, wider audience. And this is not just about me…I don’t weave carpets! This will shed some light on the whole scene.”
Not only that, but Tsherin Sherpa perceptively identifies art and culture as a niche tourism market in the future.
“Nepal has traditionally been seen as a place of mountains, for hiking, for trekking. But I keep telling people, including the Nepal Tourism Board [NTB], that we need to have a different perspective. Yes, fine, the mountains are there, this is already happening. But we need to add to this, to promote Nepal as a cultural hub…for art… for stories… there are so many things. For me, looking at Nepal from an artist’s perspective, it is a very artistically rich country and people should know about this.”
Tsherin Sherpa totally agrees with my exasperation with the way the NTB and other tourism bodies keep flogging the same dead horses: trekking and expeditions, with occasional resort to the tagline ‘Buddha was born in Nepal.’
“Exactly! Let them dig deeper!” he exclaims. “Artists can talk about what is happening now. You can look into lives, experiences, stories, histories, so many things.”
Lives….experiences…..stories….histories… Looking around me at Tsherin Sherpa’s paintings and prints with their vibrant colour, clear Himalayan iconography, and cultural richness one last time before leaving, it seemed that these words applied so perfectly to his own oeuvres. And although a very unassuming man who clearly aims for the betterment of something beyond himself, I was nevertheless left with his words about his own identity.
“I am an artist, first, but in order to inspire the local people, because I live here now, I tell them I am a Nepali artist too. With my Tibetan friends, I am a Tibetan artist. With my American art fellows, I am an American artist too. And we have an exhibition happening in Sharjah in the UAE and I am included as a South Asian artist. So that identity fluidity is, I guess, who I am. I had that in my genes I think. …And that is why you will see all these butterflies in my works. To me, a butterfly keeps changing its form dependent on what stage it is at. I am kind of like that. From egg to larva to pupa …” He was far too modest to complete the progression, leaving the words hanging in the air as I left.
All photos are by the author except the Vodka 8848