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Interview: Tsherin Sherpa on displacement and what it's like to be a Buddhist artist

"I never felt like I could belong to one culture or one identity, no matter how much I try. It's part of who I am"

As a Tibetan born in Nepal and now residing in the United States, Tsherin Sherpa has always felt a strong sense of displacement and a lack of singular identity. With strong ties to all three countries, Sherpa’s work reflects his multicultural background, uniting traditional Tibetan art and contemporary style. His new series, Beautiful Decay, which Sherpa is premiering at Rossi & Rossi in Wong Chuk Hang, is a response to the destruction wrought by the Gorkha earthquake in Nepal last year, which killed 9,000 people but demonstrated the strength of the Nepalese and their ability to overcome adversity. “The series is really about the psychological effect of the earthquake,” says Sherpa. “I didn't want to simply take the earthquake image and replicate it. It’s more about drawing from the psychological trauma and the concept of displacement, which is a very important issue to me.”

Sherpa was born to a family of artists in Kathmandu, where it is traditional for parents to pass down their crafts to the next generation. From the age of 13, Sherpa has studied and practiced traditional Tibetan art, so it was a natural progression for him to pursue a career as an artist – although he did dally with Buddhist philosophy, computer science and Mandarin as a student in Taiwan. 

Sherpa eventually moved to America and settled in Oakland, California, where the cultural differences he experienced helped broaden his artistic horizons. “I was brought up in a strict traditional Buddhist family,” he tells us. “Moving to America helped me see the world from a whole new perspective. There was also a calling for me to break away from traditional art and to try new things.” But building a career as a Buddhist artist in the US was not as straightforward as he expected. “People used to think of me as a holy person,” Sherpa says with a laugh. “I was once demonstrating traditional painting. A person came to me, one might describe him as a typical hippie, and said they felt bad that America had corrupted me because I was drinking a can of Coke. It’s interesting to see how others have a certain perception of me and for me to play with that in my art.”

Known for blending Tibetan art and thangka – a form of painting usually featuring Buddhist deities – Sherpa’s style is a culmination of his experiences and interactions with different cultures. “I still draw a lot from the traditional motifs and combine them with my own everyday life experience in the States,” he says. “It’s always interesting to see how they complement and don’t complement each other.” While Shepra keeps the spirit of thangka alive throughout his work, he also reinterprets and reinvents Tibetan, Nepalese and Buddhist iconography, dialing up the colour intensity to create his signature vibrant style. 

Displacement is another recurring theme present in Sherpa’s works, and it’s often imbued with political undertones. “My parents had to leave Tibet because of the political situation and I was born outside of the country,” Sherpa comments. “I have seen up close their dilemma of having to adjust to moving and living away from their homeland. I have seen them having to cling onto their identity while adapting to countries like Nepal and India. A lot of my works explore that.”

Following the earthquake in 2015, Sherpa returned to Nepal to see the damage caused by the natural disaster. “I saw both chaos and beauty at the same time,” Sherpa recalls. “Some of the landmarks I grew up with were destroyed and dilapidated. It was almost nightmare-ish.” For Sherpa, working on his new series became a therapeutic experience. 

Beautiful Decay is a reflection of how the earthquake has affected the people of Nepal and how the country is beautiful in its resilience. Held at Rossi & Rossi, the show’s centerpiece is a five-feet-tall copper tower with a base surrounded by broken pieces of brick and seemingly random objects. Titled Wish Fulfilling Tree, the tower is comprised of several circular levels with intrinsic patterns and faces sculpted around its circumference. Each level is filled with paper currency from Nepal, on which Sherpa asked survivors of the earthquake to write down their wishes. “The installation is an idea taken from traditional statues in Nepal,” Sherpa explains. “Historically, people stuff prayers in statues instead of wishes.” Taking a closer look at the tower, Sherpa’s injections of childlike humour are noticeable. Some of the faces on display wear comical smiles with hands holding up peace signs. Recreating the aftermath of the earthquake, the objects on the ground are pieces Sherpa collected from people who were affected and had lost their homes. The pieces range from a child’s hairclip to lipsticks, lunchboxes and a baking tray. The resulting scene is both unsettling and powerful.

Accompanying the installation is a series of colourful and striking paintings. Featuring cramped, overlapping drawings of humans, spirits and clouds emerging out of architectural structures with Himalayan characteristics, these paintings portray the chaos that followed the earthquake. Superimposed on the images are architectural blueprints painted in shades of metallic gold, Sherpa states that the blueprints are meant to reinforce the idea of displacement, since thousands of people lost their family homes, as well as echo his earlier life. “I spent my life travelling. From when I was born to later immigrating to America, I’ve always had to adjust to different environments,” he tells us. “At the same time, people who were affected by the earthquake had to move away from their homes, even temporarily, to live inside tents. I wanted the art in the series to be a narrative. To be a reflection of psychological trauma rather than a depiction of the exact event.”

Sherpa has also created two installations, each comprised of 16 panels, that further explore the displacement of people and culture. Taking a traditional thangka image, Sherpa then fragments and rearranges it into separate pieces. “The fragments can’t be pieced back together,” says Sherpa. “It’s like when something is broken down, you can’t piece it back together the way it was.” The exhibition also features several paintings with metallic gold backgrounds. The use of gold leaf is a commentary on gold’s dichotomy − its presence in icons of spirituality and commercialism − while the use of swirls echoes the progression of displacement, a dissolving effect. 

Showing these new works for the first time, Sherpa is excited to hear people’s responses. “The last time I was here in Hong Kong, it was at a major art fair,” he recalls. “So it’s going to be different with a solo exhibition. This time I’ll get to actually learn from the audience and it’ll be nice to read them.”

Most artistic styles evolve and change and Sherpa’s is no different. Looking to take a leap and experiment with different mediums, he’s started to work on sculptures and carpet art, a medium which he says is reminiscent of Tibet and the nomadic lifestyle. But displacement will always be a feaure of his art, he says: “I never felt like I could belong to one culture or one identity, no matter how much I try. It’s part of who I am. It’ll always be in my art.”

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