Gonkar Gyatso (meaning “ocean”) is a Tibetan artist resident in the United Kingdom. He was born in Lhasa in 1961 and moved to London having been awarded a scholarship to the Chelsea School of Art and Design in the late ‘90s. Gyatso graduated with an MA in Fine Art. He also studied in Beijing and achieved a BFA in Chinese Brush Painting. He is the founder of the Sweet Tea House, contemporary art gallery in London which is dedicated to exhibiting Tibetan artwork. Gyatso’s accolades are many and he received the Leverhelm Fellowship in 2003 as well as holding the position of artist in residence at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
Gyatso’s work has been exhibited globally in some of the most prestigious places including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA), The City Gallery (New Zealand), Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Israel), The Institute of Modern Art (Australia), the Chinese National Art Gallery (Beijing), the Rubin Museum of Art (New York) the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (Scotland), and the Courtauld Institute of Art (London) to name just a few. He has studios in London and Tibet.
One of the leading figures in modern Tibetan art, since the very beginning of his career Gyatso defied local artistic conventions and researched a modern Tibetan aesthetic with style and subject matter rejecting Chinese realism, combining abstract images with thangkas which are Buddhist embroideries or paintings easily rolled up as a scroll.
Gonkar Gyatso’s childhood and youth happened during the Cultural Revolution when culture and art was destroyed, when traditional Tibetan art which was mostly connected with religion was forbidden. After studying in China, Gyatso returned to Lhasa and became aware of the Dalai Lama’s speeches. These speeches began him questioning the truth of the history he had been taught as a government official’s son, and he became acquainted with Tibetan Buddhism. He developed a sense of awareness about his unique heritage and focused his attention on the traditional aspects of Tibetan art, travelling to India on a self-imposed retreat in Dharamasala where he developed his art. The city of Dharamasala was also home to the Tibetan government in exile which no doubt had an influence on his work.
Arriving in the West and establishing his gallery, Gyatso’s work has attempted to highlight the identity shift and sense of belonging caused by migration. His current style combines many traditional features such as calligraphy, the iconography of Buddhist thangka juxtaposed with collages of brightly coloured stickers, cut-outs of text and mass-media images, dispelling the stereotypical view of Tibetan culture.
Gonkar Gyatso uses his traditional skills especially those used to produce the traditional Tibetan scrolls which depict deities in various forms particularly Buddah using ancient and complex patterns and formulas. These traditional works create discussion as Gyatso travels outside the formula to create new lines of communication addressing the place of globalisation in the modern world. His most famous works juxtapose traditional thangka patterns with stickers of famous corporate logos and well known cartoons that are used to compose the religious figures.
One of the most interesting of Gyatso’s works that demonstrate this art form is “Angel” (2007) where the sticker formation of Avalokiteshvara, buddha of compassion, is breaking out from the traditional sketch behind the deity.
Rossi and Rossi, who represent Gyatso as well as other Tibetan artists, announced in 2009 that Gonkar Gyatso had been invited to show at the 53rd Venice Biennial. Daniel Birnbaum, Director of the Biennale, wrote in his letter of invitation: “In my view your work will be one of the central contributions to the exhibition and perfectly fit the theme of my show, Fare Mondi/Making Worlds…”.
Gyatso is a child of clashing cultures and his work demonstrates the hybrid products of globalisation and how cultures are responding to the spread of capitalism. Gyatso’s work is a lens on these culture clashes and via a “McDonaldisation” stance you can see major corporations infiltrating his work shifting the religious traditional art to almost a secular piece. Similarly, Gyatso’s artwork questions what is traditional to Tibetan culture in the same way as the spread of McDonalds has questioned cultural identity. Many say his works are political and social statements against the political oppression and globalisation Tibet has been subjected to. However, the artwork is deliberately merging cultures to promote a contemporary Tibetan culture that is not defined exclusively by religion or by consumerism either.