In the few years that the Windhorse Gallery in Lalitpur has been in operation, it has gained a reputation for providing little-known artists from the Himalayan communities with its space to showcase their work. The youngest artist to exhibit works at the gallery is Tenzin Gyurmey Dorjee, a second-generation Tibetan refugee living in India. Beginning May 27, Gallery Dorjees is exhibiting I Shouldn’t Be Here, which features intimate personal portraits of the Tibetan diaspora.
Some of the factors that make Dorjee’s artworks unique are the material used and his artistic production process. In many of the artworks in the exhibition, Dorjee uses drochak-bhureh (tarpaulin sacks) as canvas. The decision to use sacks reflects the resettlement experiences of the Tibetan diaspora. In the early years of life in exile, relief supplies arrived in tarpaulin bags for Tibetan communities in India and Nepal. Meticulous and meditative, his artistic process differs from the way artists typically infuse color into their work. In much of his work, Dorjee transfers colors onto his canvas rather than applying paint directly.
The first painting to greet visitors is the “Silent Playground,” which unfolds over a collage of notebooks belonging to a student at a Tibetan school. As the name suggests, the artwork depicts a scene of children playing in a playground. If you look closely at the artworks, you can almost hear laughter in the air. The painting also has many small details that add a touch of Tibetanism to the artwork. At the center of the painting is a playful little girl wearing a photo of the Dalai Lama around her neck, a common practice among Tibetan Buddhists to show their devotion to their spiritual leader. A little above the playful girl is a childish drawing of an oddly shaped bus with the word Tibet written across it, perhaps symbolizing that the bus is going to Tibet. At the bottom of the artwork are a Tibetan child’s answers to questions about his country, his origins, his love and his religion. In his childish handwriting, the boy answers as honestly as he can – identifying Tibet as his country of origin, but his country of birth as India. For love, he writes down a long list that includes Pala (which means father in Tibetan), amala (Mother in Tibetan), World, Country and Payal, his Indian friend. In the lower left corner of the painting are childlike drawings of what is believed to be a golden airplane and a turquoise car, both of which are mentioned in a popular Tibetan song paying tribute to the Dalai Lama.
The exhibition features several such artworks, allowing viewers to embark on a heartwarming (often heartbreaking) journey to see what life is like for Tibetan refugees and the nuances of their struggles while trying to stay far from their homeland find some semblance of normal life in Tibet. But Dorjee’s works do not fish for sympathy for the Tibetans. Instead, it wants viewers to see the resilience and humility of the Tibetan community and the great effort they have made to adjust to life in exile and keep their cultures and traditions alive.
While India is home to the largest Tibetan diaspora, Nepal’s Tibetan refugees form the country’s largest refugee community. Nepal has been hosting Tibetan refugees since the late 1950s and it is estimated that more than 15,000 Tibetan refugees remain in the country. For this reason, the exhibition of I Shouldn’t Be Here in Nepal makes sense as it serves as a window for the Nepalese to better understand what life is like for Nepal’s Tibetan diaspora.
“Most of these works are part of my memories. I wanted to celebrate how the Tibetan diaspora has kept our resilience and humility intact even after all these years since they left Tibet,” Dorjee said at the gallery on a recent afternoon.
While the artworks are deeply personal to Dorjee, some of the themes they address are familiar and universal.
One of these universal works of art is “Mood Swing”. The work is set in a bathroom and features Dorjee’s sister wearing costumes of DC and Disney characters. The painting shows his sister making funny facial expressions and just being herself and facing her moods. The artwork dives into the “identity” we all try to create for ourselves in a world that constantly demands that we be something else. Dorjee says he got the idea for the artwork while trying to cheer up his sister after she lost her job.
“I made this painting to make my sister smile and convince her not to worry too much about what the world might think of her. I wanted her to keep her childlike nature and not be too hard on herself,” he says.
In his artwork entitled The Sky is Falling, the central character is his father and the work is Dorjee’s attempt to explore the importance his father places on compassion. The painting shows Dorjee’s father chasing away a cat, which is only doing what comes naturally to him: trying to kill a bird.
“My father is a very compassionate person. He can’t stand the sight of a living creature in pain and is always trying to save everyone, which I don’t think is humanly possible,” says Dorjee.
There are a few other paintings in the exhibition that address such universal themes, but the theme of most of the artwork in the exhibition revolves around the experiences of the Tibetan diaspora. His artwork titled “Champions” wanders into this very theme and does so in a way that makes it the most moving piece in the exhibition.
The artwork depicts a Tibetan-Indian athlete standing on a podium and raising the Indian flag to mark her victory, perhaps at a national competition. Instead of being surrounded by spectators cheering on her victory, she is alone and enclosed by a wall, and you can almost hear the heartbreaking silence in the air.
Dorjee explains that the artwork was inspired by the experiences of Tibetan-Indian Wushu and a mixed martial arts athlete who has represented India in international martial arts competitions.
“Circumstances have forced many Tibetans in India to take Indian citizenship. Some of them have even represented India on international platforms and made their adopted country proud, but despite their achievements, they are still considered outsiders and don’t receive the same recognition,” says Dorjee.
Born and raised in Himachal Pradesh, India, like many Tibetan refugee children in India, Dorjee attended a Tibetan community school. Dorjee says he developed an appreciation for art from a very young age.
“My father does freehand sketches a lot and he’s very good at it. When I was a little boy, I also made sketches. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been that person who loved creating and collecting art,” says Dorjee.
But it wasn’t until much later in life that Dorjee decided to become a full-time artist. After graduating from high school, he wanted to become a genetic engineer. When he failed to get into his desired genetic engineering college, his sister suggested that he take a gap year and try to get into college the following year.
During this gap year, Dorjee began drawing again and fell in love with the process. The following year he joined the College of Art in Delhi and graduated in 2012. Over the next few years, Dorjee’s artwork explored darker stylistics.
“It took me a couple of years to realize that people don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on artwork that deals with dark themes,” says Dorjee. “To support myself financially, I started making digital art.”
But the journey to becoming the artist Dorjee has become today began when he met Nepalese contemporary artist Ang Tsherin Sherpa in 2017. His interaction with Sherpa, Dorjee says, changed his perspective on art.
“When I met Ang Tsherin –la I had just graduated from art school for the first time. When I met him again in 2017, I was on the verge of giving up art for good. During that meeting, he bought one of my paintings and something changed in me,” says Dorjee. “See, it was the first time someone really appreciated my work. And that was enough for me to reconsider my decision to give up art. I will forever be grateful to him for believing in me.”
Sherpa still remembers the reticent Dorjee assisting him during a residency program in 2012.
“To be honest, I didn’t really like his work at first. They felt dark, and maybe it was because he was in that room at the time,” Sherpa shared in a phone interview.
But over the years, Sherpa says, Dorjee has grown as an artist and become more committed to the idea of becoming an artist.
“With this exhibition, he brings the audience closer to stories from the Tibetan diaspora that we rarely see represented in art. And his work feels universal since we’re all on the road so much. We can all relate to the diaspora experience,” Sherpa tells the Post.
The exhibition, says Dorjee, made him realize the important role art can play in storytelling and highlighting themes.
“I spoke to some local Tibetans here in the gallery and they thanked me for making them feel seen and heard. It also surprised me that many Nepalese art lovers I met here in the gallery told me they had no idea there were any Tibetan refugees in Nepal,” says Dorjee. “I’m beginning to realize my responsibility as an artist to serve my community and I’m very excited for the journey ahead.”
I Shouldn’t Be Here is on view at Wind Horse Gallery, Bhanimandal, Lalitpur until June 30th.