The Seattle Tibet Fest’s art exhibition this year, From Hemlock to Douglas Fir: A Migration Story of Tibetan Lumberjacks was a two-part show: the first part was a photo exhibition of Don Messerschmidt’s photographs that documented the first group of Tibetans who came to the United States as migrant workers in 1967-1969.
The second part of the show was a solo exhibition by a young Tibetan-American artist, Tenzing Lhamo Dorjee who illustrated a series of works based on the interviews.
This arts initiative at the Seattle Tibet Fest, supported by the Tibetan Association of Washington was a short weekend residency that we hope to continue each year. Using art as a tool to diversify access points to our own histories helps us accelerate the process of building bridges between the generational and cultural gaps within our own community.
This conversation with Dorjee highlights her Tibetan and American upbringing and the complexity of that identity. While there are a few tear-jerker moments, she has a seemingly effortless way to pepper it up in humor and wit.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work as an illustrator? I am Tenzing Lhamo Dorjee, I was born and raised here in the Pacific Northwest region to two very loving but kind-of-overbearing parents who just want their little daughter to grow up and be a big kid and do a lot of good stuff through her art. My work comes from my childhood submerged in Western American pop- culture and my Tibetan heritage. It is very humorous, honest and expressive. I’m trying to learn to combine all that I love and discover ways I can combine it with my knowledge of Tibetan culture and history.
How did you get interested in drawing? Were you always creative as a kid? I’ve always liked drawing. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up- but I always had a pen and paper. So working with these basic tools is so natural to me. I remember once my Ama came to me and she had a huge stack of printer paper. She was like, “do something with this!” And I would make these huge maps of fantasy worlds and scrolls and connect all the papers. Then the internet came along and I started to get exposed to more online artists who were making these really cool digital art and animations and it really inspired me. At first, it made me feel like maybe I couldn’t be an artist if I didn’t have these fancy tools. But it never computed with me to work with so much digital media, because it didn’t feel authentic to me. I was so used to working with more traditional media. I love digital work and I can totally appreciate it, but it’s not the way I work.
What made you decide to take drawing more seriously and pursue it in college? It was in my junior year in high school where I got to take an AP art class. I had never taken an art class before that. My art teacher, Mr. Donahue is an artist himself- he made these super cool 90s grunge sculptures. He encouraged me and believed in what I was doing- and that really mattered to me. Hmmm…. am I getting very emotional thinking about a really cool guy that appreciated me and happy about the career that I have taken? Yeah! If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in Seattle right now.
I also remember you mentioned a Tibetan teacher from Sunday School who was very encouraging. I can’t speak Tibetan fluently, but I’ve always been very interested in other aspects of Tibetan culture, like performing on stage, calligraphy and such. There was a man who was very close to my family and our Tibetan community in Portland, Oregon. He was our Tibetan Language teacher for the North West Tibetan Cultural Association (NWTCA). I had a lot of respect for him. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago, I went to visit him in his home while he was ill in bed and he told me that “as long as you keep loving your culture, you are still Tibetan.” Not being able to speak Tibetan as well as others, had set a lot of barriers up for me. It’s harder for me to speak to Tibetan elders without being judged or hearing comments about not speaking Tibetan. I attended Sunday school for a long time! I stopped going till my Sophomore year in High School. I think the only reason why I stayed for so long was because I just wanted to dance and hang out with my Tibetan friends.
What kind of projects have been most challenging for you? I’ve really struggled finding a project to do for my senior BFA in art school. I knew I wanted to make it Tibetan but I didn’t know what the final concept was going to be. I bounced through a lot of ideas: a children’s book, interviewing Tibetan youth through a social media campaign, a graphic novel about my parents… I had a lot of anxiety in my second semester of my senior year. A lot of my classmates had started working on their projects and I was still researching ideas. I was so worried I wouldn’t have anything to present at the end of the year. That’s when I realized, I came up with these ideas because these were things I wished I HAD growing up. Tibetan representation that didn’t come from a boring history book or a documentary. It was also around this time I joined a Facebook Page called Subtle Bhoepha Traits where Tibetans from all over share Tibetan themed memes.
How would you introduce Illustration to someone who doesn’t know much about it? Art asks questions and Design solves the question or tries to answer them. There is something about trying to articulate more. It depends on what kind of illustration, but the overarching theme from my point of view is that whoever your audience is, should get it immediately. That communication must be effective or it’s not doing what it’s supposed to.
I am curious about how this experience on working with a very research-based project on the Tibetan Lumberjacks been for you? I’ve only learned recently about these Lumberjacks. So I felt like hitting my past self because I didn’t even know my own Agu-la and many other Tibetan men in my community were one of those 27 migrants. It is like an out of body experience. I’ve been so used to learning about historical, pre-1959 Tibet. So researching this has been so interesting. It feels like I’m a mash up of an anthropologist, historian, and an archeologist.
You mentioned the exhibition of the migration series by Jacob Lawrence and how that made you cry. How does that work inform the way you’re approaching this project? I was in a rut trying to figure out what to do now that I had all of this amazing research. When suddenly I remembered the time I went to the Seattle Art Museum where Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series were finally together for the first time. I didn’t know much of him, all I heard was that this would have been the first time all 60 of his paintings were together. When I entered the space, there was an Asian woman reading a poem about her mother and their immigration to America. Listening to her words as I was looking at the paintings, it really struck a chord with me. I realized that this was what was going to motivate me to make a project. I watched a video on Youtube later on the Philip’s Collection made back in 1993 about Lawrence and the Migration series. The one thing that resonated with me was when he said “I was far removed from the culture I knew, yet I was very close to it through my mother and through her friends. There is a paradox, be close and yet far away.” These were the words that put exactly how I was feeling at the time. I had spent years going to Bhoekhang, performed countless Tibetan songs and dances on stage: a fabrication of what my Tibetan parents and elders created of what Tibet is. For which I’m blessed but saddened by. There are many immigrant kids out there who grew up in an environment where they didn’t have their culture alongside them. I’m very grateful for my Popo-las and Momo-las who have been the last generation to know what Tibet really looked like and felt. So I feel like it’s my job with this project to take these thoughts and memories and turn it into something tangible. If Jacob Lawrence could? Why can’t I?
Any new discoveries you’d made during your research?
That my Agu-la and all of my elders were pretty cool people? And that learning history is something that takes time to uncover. Tibetans, not just the kids; but parents and elders should have some sort of sit down together and share these untold tales to each other. So we can build bridges between generations before they are lost.
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Tenzing Lhamo Dorjee is an illustrator, designer and a cartoonist based in Seattle, Washington. She is a Tibetan-American woman born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and graduated with a BFA in Design at Cornish College of the Arts in May 2019. In July 2019, she was part of The New Wave, a group exhibition of Tibetan contemporary artists, curated by Yakpo Collective in New York. You can find more of her work on Twitter and Instagram @tldorjee
The show’s title, From Hemlock to Douglas Fir is taken from Rinchen Tsognyi la’s interview where he talks about having worked with wood his entire life: first hemlock, then douglas fir. Our resident artist at the Seattle Tibet Fest, Tenzin Lhamo Dorji chose this quote from his interview as the show’s title. Rinchen Tsognyi is the sweetest, kindest and one of the purest souls I’ve met. How he talks about traumatic events in his life with so much compassion and forgiveness is beyond my capacity of understanding.
**All photographs in color are by Don Messerschmidt and Sonam Nyatsatsang contributed the magazine article. **
Where in Tibet are you from and how long were you in India/ Nepal before you heard of this opportunity to come to Maine?
I am from a village called Namru. When I was about six-seven years old, my parents sent me to Nalanda monastery in Phenpo. It took us 15-20 days on a horseback to get to Phenpo.
Were you sent to the monastery because your family had a lot of children?
No, not really. We were only two of us. I had a sister. It was common practice in those days to send at least one of your kids to a monastery for a better life where they would get free education and good food. I was sent to Nalanda monastery to study under Chop-gey Rinpoche as a monk. I never got a chance to go back and visit my family because when word was out about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, I fled along with our group from the monastery with our Rinpoche. We went to Mustang together and eventually from there, to Dharamsala.
What year was this?
1964. I was about 16-17 years old when I came to Dharamsala. I wanted join school and study, but they said I was too tall and my feet were too big. At the time, older kids like me were trying to pass for younger than what we really were- since that was the only way to get into TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village). There was an age limit to get into school, I was obviously too old to start. One of the senior lamas with whom I came to India helped me find a job at TCV. I joined the shoe-making workshop. We were trained to make and mend shoes for the children attending TCV at the time. It wasn’t traditional Tibetan shoes, just regular shoes for kids to wear every day. I did that for about three years.
When did they start recruiting workers for the paper mill in Maine? How did you hear about it?
I could be wrong, but what I’ve heard is that someone from the Great Northern Paper company in Maine visited India and during his trip saw the Tibetan laborers building roads in India. He saw how hard the work was and perhaps immediately thought that they would work equally hard if hired to work as lumberjacks in Maine since that was very difficult work, too. He contacted the Office of Tibet in Delhi. They wanted to hire only six Tibetans in the beginning and would recruit additional 21 workers if they were satisfied with the work. I didn’t have any family back in India or Nepal. So I applied for the position as soon as I heard about it. I don’t know much about the others- but that’s how I was selected.
Were you nervous about going to the United States and getting on a plane for the first time?
I honestly felt nothing. My life has been very unpredictable. I left my home to go to the monastery at such a young age, and then had to flee Tibet to Nepal and India. Whether it was India or the United States- it didn’t make any difference to me. Perhaps because I only had myself to take care of, I wasn’t very ambitious- and left everything to fate. But I don’t think we imagined living in the United States forever at that time. We thought after making a total of $10,000 together, we might head back to India.
Did the company sponsor all the legal paperwork, etc?
We didn’t understand much since we barely spoke English but I’m guessing our travel papers were all prepared and sponsored by the company that hired us. But that reminds me of this story. We had an interpreter who told us to say “yes” to whatever questions they’d asked us on the immigration forms. One of the answers was agreeing to join the military if asked to (or something along those lines). And so as instructed we said “yes”. This was around the Vietnam War. The US government was actively looking to draft men for military service. We were sent to Selective Services and had to pass a physical exam. But our employer was really upset for obvious reasons. He had spent all this time and money to bring us to Maine. So he went to talk to the office and persuaded them to take the six of us off the list. He told them that we didn’t speak any English and it might not be a good idea to send us because we wouldn’t know how to follow any of the instructions due to language barriers. So luckily we were not selected to go to Vietnam! (laughs)
How was your experience in Portage, Maine?
It’s a very small town: we had a bar, a post office, one motel and that’s about it. One time, we had a visitor named Phuntsok Dhundupla from the Tibet Office in New York. I remember him saying that he wasn’t able to sleep at all because it was too quiet. At that time, there were about three Tibetans working at the Office of Tibet in NYC.
The camp on-site where they spent their weekdays. Photographed by Don Messerschmidt
In the 1990s, when I was in middle school- we were taught about lumberjacks and I remember watching documentaries about it. But I never imagined Tibetans as lumberjacks.
Yes, since we were so few of us and we weren’t in Maine for too long- not many people heard of us. The first Tibetans who came to the United States, were either working for the Office of Tibet in New York or were from aristocratic families and were studying at universities with scholarships.
I can’t even imagine how incredibly difficult the work must have been.
I remember the food being very good or else, we’d probably not have survived. Winters were harsh and the work was extremely hard. We were paid based on our production. So if you missed work, there was no pay. There was a place we rented to stay over the weekends. That was our main expense. Other than that, we also had to take good care of our own chain-saws. If it broke during work, we had to pay from our own pocket to get it fixed.
But it sounds like we were luckier than the batch of people who worked before us. We heard that only a few years before we joined, the lumberjacks would have to go hunt their own meat for meals. So one of them would be assigned to hunt a deer. If he failed, they’d be no meat for dinner. It wasn’t that bad when we were there, at least we didn’t have to hunt for our own food. We got cooked meals.
Did you live at the site?
Yes. We lived in trailers. There were about 35 people in our camp. Other than the six of us, the rest were French Canadians. It was harder especially in the winters. We’d have snow up to our thighs- but still had to carry on with the work. We would cut the trees and pile the logs on the frozen lake. During summers, when the lake melts, it would takes the logs away to their destination through the river. We cut mostly hemlock trees for the paper mill.
When we first started working here, I remember we had to drag the logs in the snow and load them on horse drawn carriages. The horses wouldn’t listen to us since they only understood French (laughs).
Fortunately for us, we had very good camaraderie not just amongst the six of us but with the whole team. Most of the lumberjacks in our camp were French- Canadians so they spoke French. We spoke Tibetan and the supervisors spoke English. But somehow we all managed to communicate with each other. Since we didn’t have our families here, every weekend we had someone inviting us for lunch or dinner. They were very kind to us. They showed us the way around. Portage was a very small town- we were the only non-whites. We were called “the six boys”. But considering that this was 1960s America, we never felt unwelcomed. We always had people stop by and bring us either drinks or food.
How long did you stay in Maine?
We stayed for three years. The work was very hard but the experience was very positive. One of our daughters went back to Portage along with her friend to see the place where we worked. She asked around to see if she could find any of our colleagues or families that lived in Portage around the time we were there. Finally, they found a lady that remembered all of us. She showed them where we worked and mentioned that though we didn’t speak English, we were very good dancers (laughs).
How did you end up in Oregon?
When we were in Maine, we had a visitor called Don Messerschmidt who wanted to interview us. He was studying Anthropology and had visited Nepal and India and met Tibetan Refugees there. When he heard about us in Maine, he wanted to meet with us for his research. We all became good friends. After leaving Maine, I worked at a hospital in New jersey. Don got us work at a saw-mill company in the Oregon Coast. So we moved to Oregon and I stayed with the company for ten years.
After that, I worked at a Wood Treating Company in Vancouver, WA for twenty one years- till my retirement. So I’ve been working with wood all my life: first Hemlock, then Douglas Fir trees.
What year did you marry?
I married in 1971. I went to India and travelled to Benaras and Orissa with my wife’s family. After having spent ten years in the United States, I had become so sensitive. I remember the food made me extremely sick.
What about Tibet? Did you get a chance to go back and visit your family?
I did go back to Tibet in 1984. I wanted to visit my family in Namru. It was a little over a day by car from Lhasa. On our way there, our driver had made a stop so we could get something to eat. But when I was walking out of the car I fell down. Perhaps it was because of the high altitude. I got dizzy, lost my balance and fell hard on my face. It was pretty bad- I had apparently fractured my jaw. Looking at my injury, the owner of the restaurant was very concerned. Everyone was telling me how bad it was- I didn’t realize it myself. They called their local doctor and in about an hour or so, the doctor arrived and gave me a shot to avoid infection. It was a huge injection! That made me very nervous.
I had to meet my sister with my fractured jaw! But there’s another funny story. So our driver suggested that he would get me noodle soup since I couldn’t eat any solids with my jaw wired shut. He went to get noodle soup from a neighbor. He probably talked about me and my family with her and it turned out that she was my relative. She made sure to take me to her house. It was clear I wasn’t in a good shape to travel to Namru, so we decided to call my sister and meet me in Nagchuka.
Even though my fall was really bad. I guess the doctor and nurses were pretty good at what they did, because when I got back to the US, my doctor said I was taken good care of in Nagchuka.
How was your sister doing in Namru?
They had a very hard life. I learned about my family through her and my relatives. Both my parents died in the labor camp. My father was working in the mines. The Chinese at the time were starting to mine minerals in Tibet. I don’t know what minerals were being mined in Namru but most of the locals were made to work there. The mines was the main cause of death for most Tibetans that died in our village. They were given very little or no food and made to work extended hours. Whatever it is that they were mining, was very toxic. And obviously they had no protection gear whatsoever. The earth would spew some liquid that caused all their skin to tear open. Huge quantities of them would be loaded away on trucks. I don’t know about now but all the laborers working the mine were people from my village and the ones from labor camps close by. I haven’t seen it for myself but these were accounts I heard of when I visited my family in Tibet.
Are you still in touch with your sister?
She has now passed away. Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw her.
From Hemlock to Douglas Fir: A Migration Story of Tibetan lumberjacks was a show that I curated for the Tibet Fest in Seattle, WA (August 23-24, 2019).
Since the show was based on the Tibetan lumberjacks- I interviewed Wangchuk Dorji la but I couldn’t resist not adding a few questions for his wife, Sonam Dorji la at the end. I am so grateful for them sharing with me details of their experiences in Maine. Parts of this interview was published in the festival’s magazine- but this is the longer version. It follows Wangchuk la’s migration from Tibet to Maine. His memory is sharp and detailed and translating his Tibetan sentences to English was both pleasure and pain. I never realized the process of translation required so much empathy and patience.
**All photographs in color are by Don Messerschmidt and Sonam Nyatsatsang (Wangchuk Dorji’s son-in-law) contributed the archival photos in B&W. **
How old were you when you fled Tibet? I was around 15 years old. It was 1959.
So you probably remember the time when your family decided to leave your home in Tibet? Yes- very clearly. My uncle from my mother’s side was the chief (chikyap) of Shey-kar province in Tibet. We had two governors: one was a monk and the other was an aristocrat from Lhasa. The aristocrat was ruthless and there were a lot of complaints from the locals about him. As a chief of his province, my Uncle had to go to the capital city of Lhasa to file a case against him. This was in 1957. My uncle used to spend many months in Lhasa since it was the political capital of Tibet. And each time, he would take one of his sons or nephews along with him. Through these trips, we got some exposure of the city and got an opportunity to study in Lhasa. I didn’t get to study a lot but the exposure in itself was great.
How long did you stay in Lhasa? For about two years. I was there during the battle of Lhasa in 1959. I was with my parents and my Uncle. The rental house we were staying in happened to be right between the Tibetan and Chinese soldiers. All day and night we could hear the deafening sounds of guns and heavy artilleries being fired. It’s a miracle that none of us were shot. Every half hour or so, it would stop and we’d look for opportunities to get away. There was a little tunnel that we could escape through, but only one at a time. I remember, being stuck in it together with another girl. As soon as I managed to pull myself out of the tunnel- the entire family that got out before me were killed on the spot. So I ended up hiding back at the tunnel until it became quiet again and managed to escape to a safe place.
The next day, we all tried to go back home. It was chaotic and confusing. On our way back we saw countless dead bodies in the streets- it was horrific! It was clear we had already lost. All the Tibetan men were summoned together in the streets of Lhasa. You could see Chinese soldiers everywhere. One of the soldiers, poked me with his gun and told me to stay back. But they took my Uncle and my father away with the others. There was no way to find out where they were sent. They were sent to separate internment camps. It took me over a month to find them. When I finally found my Uncle, he told me to go back home to Ponrong. Little did I imagine at the time that he would end up spending twenty years in prison. I went back home shortly after seeing him. After three-four months, my father was released from the camp and he joined us. Since the situation in Lhasa was only getting worse, my family and most of our cousins left our village on our yaks. We started our journey down south to Nepal- some of us making it, some of us dying on the way.
Where did you stay in Nepal? Most of our family stayed at the border of Tibet and Nepal in Tato Pani. We thought that this would be a temporary situation and we were hoping to eventually go back to Tibet. The elders stayed in Nepal so they could be closer to Tibet. But the younger ones amongst us went to India. We were hoping to get into school in Dharamsala. Unfortunately, I was too old for school. So I went to build roads in Kullu Manali. I did that for about 7 months and then went back to Dharamsala in the hopes of finding some training opportunities.
Did you eventually find one? Yes. I used to constantly ask the people working in the offices for job- training opportunities. But before my training I also worked at a restaurant for about two months.
How did you get a job at the restaurant? At the time, most Tibetans were in Upper Dharamsala. Lower Dharamsala were mostly Indian locals. One day, after work I went for a stroll to lower Dharamsala. I only had a tsurug (a rug) and a nambu chuba with me. There was a place called Lhasa Hotel. Since there were hardly any Tibetans in this area- it was easy to spot the two Tibetan men there. One of them asked me if I needed a job. Since he spoke Hindi fluently- he helped me get work at a restaurant. My job was basically cleaning and running errands for the owner. This really opened my eyes. I learned basic Hindi words like pani, roti, chawal, etc. But even while working here, I was always making visits back to the Home Office pleading with the government officials to send me for any kind of training or school.
I remember this one story very clearly at the restaurant. The owner of the restaurant asked me to go buy hara mirch. I had never heard that word before. I repeated the words to myself the entire way to the vegetable vendor like my life depended on it. As soon as I got there, I asked for hara mirch. He pointed at the green chilies. It was such a relief that I didn’t forget the word. But more importantly, it felt good that he understood what I said. When you don’t know the language, it eats at you like a disease. I used to listen in amazement to the few Tibetans who’d visit the restaurant and talk in Hindi. I would watch closely their lips and the way they enunciated the words- wanting so desperately to sound like them. I found the pronunciations very hard and wondered how the sounds came out of them so easily. I even found myself a Tibetan-Hindi dictionary and learned some basic Hindi, but when I spoke it, they wouldn’t understand me at all. But slowly, I began to understand whatever they were saying.
Not too long after, I lost my nambu chuba. I hadn’t felt a loss that deep. It was the only thing I had to keep me warm and that too I lost. At night I slept in the doorway of the restaurant, and during the day I would hide my things so it wouldn’t get stolen. It was a very difficult time, I had no one to talk to, I couldn’t even speak the local language to communicate with anyone. It was a very lonely experience. But, in hindsight, that experience taught me a lot.
Luckily for me, not too long after, a position opened up in Delhi and I got a chance to go training. The Tibetan government official gave me some paperwork and about forty-fifty rupees to go to Delhi. I went to the restaurant and told my employer about it, too. He gave me some money which must have been a gift or perhaps just my salary- I don’t remember. I had no idea how to get to Delhi but somehow, I got there. I remember taking the bus to Pathankot and getting on a third-class coach train to Delhi. Along with six others, we got training for about a month for social work. After the training, we came back to Dharamsala. We all lived together as roommates, but it was a big relief to finally have shelter and a fixed ration for groceries.
What kind of work was it? That was social work- it was very hard. We saw hundreds each day for basic medical aid and helping with interpreting for Tibetans who had to visit a doctor’s office. Even though my Hindi was very limited- it was better than most of those arriving from Tibet. People were dying of various sicknesses, mostly diarrhea. We had to clean all of that. Then we had to burn the dead bodies but didn’t have money to buy wood. That meant we had to literally plead for money from local residents so we could buy wood to burn the bodies- it was no easy task. We also had to handle the dead bodies ourselves. That was hard both physically and mentally. Two years passed doing this. It was around this time, I was asked if I wanted to work for a mobile unit hospital. There was an NGO in San Francisco called Dr. Tom Dooley Foundation. The founder of this organization met His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Mussoorie and promised a mobile medical unit. That was really helpful since Tibetans were scattered around many areas in Northern India. The main office was in Dharamsala. We had a trailer full of medical supplies along with a cargo van that would travel around to provide basic medical aid to Tibetans especially the road- builders. This is where I first met Sonam (whom I would eventually get married to later). We were a team of about six-seven of us including an Indian doctor. Sonam was the only Tibetan nurse. She has just finished her nurse training in Kalimpong. We also had two drivers, a few translators and a lab technician.
Where and how often did you travel for this? We would go visit the places every month. Tibetans were building roads in Chamba, Kulu Valley and Dalhousie. Most Tibetans were coming to India from Tibet mainly to get blessings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They had lost everything: their country, their home but also family members along the way dying from sicknesses or hunger. Getting a chance to see their spiritual leader in Dharamsala was their only hope that gave them some solace. After that, the Home Affairs Department would help relocate them to road building projects. While children were sent to school and some for training jobs- majority of the adults were sent to build roads.
Was it around this time that you heard about this opportunity to come to Maine? Yes, as soon as I heard of it, I went to the Home Affairs Office and put my name down. We had to go to Delhi to be interviewed- I think there were about eleven-twelve people who applied- out of which six of us were selected.
I wonder how your family reacted to this. Did you get a chance to discuss this plan of leaving for the United States with your family? My parents were in Orissa. I didn’t really ask anyone for permission or for a second opinion. I made the decision to leave by myself- it felt like the best choice at the time. We obviously knew of the United States. But we had no concept of how far it would be. We’d try to understand the distance between the two countries through time differences: night time in India would be day time in America.
It was like going to outer space or to the moon? And you’d never flown before? Yes, you could say that. No one knew anything about the place. But there was nothing I could do- I had already made my mind to leave.
What did your family think of your decision? My father had gone to speak to his lama and see whether my decision to go to the United States was a good one. Luckily, the lama said it was a great decision. So my family was happy with my decision. It wouldn’t have made any difference to my decision anyways but at least hearing that from our lama gave my parents comfort. My cousins were very happy for me because they knew it was going to be a better life. At the time, we never got a meal that filled our bellies. Since we were all highland nomads, we didn’t know how to work the fields. So there were no jobs for my family in Orissa. They could only rely on the limited ration they got everyday which was barely enough to feed the whole family. I also went to visit my Aunt in Dharamsala. My aunt couldn’t sleep at all when she heard the news of me leaving- I was like her own son. Her husband, brothers and two sons were already in prison at the same. She used to say, life is only full of suffering. She was very concerned that I was going so far away to a complete unknown place. It was her worrying about me that made me most sad about leaving.
Were you anxious about going away? How was your experience flying for the first time? I was not anxious at all. I was very excited. We flew to Bombay, then to Karachi, Frankfurt, London and finally to New York. When we arrived to London- I heard we still had about six-seven hours more to fly. I remember thinking, wow- it’s really far! You see, we had no idea how far America was. It was such an abstract concept. But I enjoyed the plane ride a lot. There was plenty of food to eat and such great service. We had never rode on a plane before and being young- we were curious and just in awe of everything. As refugees, we had never eaten a full meal and here we were being served a rich variety of meat and fruits. When we landed in New York, we met a few Tibetans who were already in the US: a few monks, students and some government officials working at the Office of Tibet in New York. They had a news conference set up for us along with a Representative from the Great Northern Paper Company. But we didn’t really say much since most of us didn’t speak English.
How did this company in Maine decide to sponsor six Tibetans? America during that time was doing very well economically but there was a shortage of laborers. The company that recruited us- The Great Northern Paper company had difficulty finding lumberjacks because it was hard physical labor. They had spoken to their advisor, who was a professor in New York. When this Professor was visiting Bhutan and India during a trip, he’d seen a lot of Tibetan Refugees building roads. He immediately thought of the Great Northern and made a suggestion of sponsoring Tibetans as lumberjacks in Maine. They agreed to first sponsor only six Tibetans and if they were satisfied with their work, they would hire an additional twenty-one. They were happy with us so after two years- we were a total of twenty seven Tibetans in Maine. We were the first group of Tibetans who came to the United States for work. We got a green card by the time we got here to the United States.
I also heard you almost got drafted to war? When we went to Delhi to get the visa, on the application form it did say that if called to war, it was our civic responsibility and we couldn’t object- something like that. When we arrived, two amongst the six of us were excused because of their age. But four of us were called for further questioning and physical check-up. Once we were finished with that, they put us in a category. I think it was a low category. The Great Northern also went to request them to excuse us. Either ways, our names weren’t called. We did get a paper from them that had our category number. They said if called, we would have to show up. Luckily, for whatever reasons we were never called. But if we had to, can you imagine? We fled the Chinese, came to Nepal and India and went through a lot. We come here to the United States for work but we’re sent to war instead- that would be tragic, wouldn’t it? (laughs) But at the time, we didn’t even give it a thought. Everyone was going through so much, there weren’t even options available. We had to do whatever we were asked to do, we couldn’t afford to think twice.
Were you nervous that you’d be drafted? Not really. We were just waiting to see what would happen. But eventually the war came to an end. We weren’t called, so…
How was your experience in Portage, Maine? We were only six of us- the only Asians in town. Our neighbors would always check on us. It was a small town- there was one grocery store, a post office, a bar and that’s about it. We used to stay in town on the weekends and go back to the campgrounds during the weekdays. The first month, we got a ride- but after a month or so we pooled in money and bought our own car and drove together to work. At the campgrounds, they had a cook so all our meals were arranged for. There was a lot of food- buffet style. They had butter, peanut butter & eggs. They used to give you a lot of eggs. Our co-workers, the locals used to waste so much food and I remember that was such a big culture shock!
This makes me think of another story. When we got our visa to come to the US our translator said that he would take us to celebrate. We went to the American Embassy’s cafeteria and he bought us all a coke each. That was all we could afford and it was such a luxury for us. But the Americans in the cafeteria were eating these big sandwiches. The size of that sandwich was a sign of abundance for me. Most of us barely got to eat a full-meal in those days. I remember feeling very convinced that about my decision to go abroad.
How long did you work in Maine? We were under contract for two years, but I worked for about three years.
Did any of you injure yourself while at work? I broke my foot because a tree fell on it. So I remember I couldn’t go to work for some time.
How many months of the year were you working as lumberjacks? Did you take/get any time off? Spring time is when the snow melts. It’s not safe to drive then because the forest becomes very muddy and slushy- so the roads are closed. Those two months, we have our time off. Other than those two months- you’re working throughout the year. Winters were rough- it used to get 20-30 below. When we’re working, we’d wear double gloves, layers over layers. The first year it was very harsh. We had to cut the wood four feet and pile them four feet high- we weren’t strong enough to lift them unless we were two people. Then we’d load the logs into a carriage that was drawn by these huge horses who couldn’t understand us. It would snow about 3-4 feet high or more sometimes. We also had to take our chain saw and fuel along. It was very hard the first year but the second year, they got tractors to replace the horses. Then it was a lot easier. We didn’t have to cut the logs into so many pieces since the tractors were more powerful than the horses.
So eventually you moved to the Pacific Northwest with the help of an American couple: Don and Kareen Messerschmidt. How did you meet them? When we were in Northern Maine, there was an article published about us in a local newspaper in Oregon. Don read that article and immediately got in touch with us. He was a PhD student at the University of Oregon, Eugene and had already been to India and Nepal for research work. He was aware about the situation of Tibetan Refugees there. He contacted us and asked if he could come and visit us. He stayed with us all summer after which we became very good friends. After we worked at Maine, it was with Don’s help that most of us moved to Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. They told us the weather was milder and more enjoyable and offered to help us look for new jobs.
Kareen’s father had a lumber company in Warrington, Oregon. Few of the lumberjacks went to Oregon after working two-three years in Maine.
I moved to Vancouver from Maine. I worked at a factory that made trailer houses. I didn’t work there long- I think I was very uncomfortable and a little nervous since I had already injured my foot before. So Don helped me find work at a church and I worked there about a year or two.
Then I joined a wood treating lumber company in Washougal, WA. Most of the Tibetans from our group were in Warrenton, Oregon. We used to visit Warrenton for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration, but in Losar (Tibetan New Years) we got together in Vancouver. I worked at the same company as a client manager for thirty years till my retirement.
Momo Sonam, I’m also interested to hear about how you came to the United States. Momo Sonam: I came separately for school to study nursing. We worked together for three years in India so we’d already met before. After finishing school, I didn’t have a green card. Since Dr. Dooley’s Foundation had sponsored my education, they asked me if I wanted to continue helping Tibetan refugees. My response was obviously “yes” but it so happened that the mobile unit couldn’t continue because of political problems. Also, the mobile van got into a fatal accident in India so there was no funding to buy another one. So they asked me if I was open to go to Shanta Bhawan Hospital in Kathmandu. But I didn’t want to go to Nepal since I didn’t know anyone there. In any case, since I knew Wangchukla in Maine- I went to visit him. I was still planning to go back. But I ended up staying and we got married. What a big mistake (laughs)!
Popo Wangchuk: You mean the best decision you made in your life? (Laughs)
Momo Sonam: When we were in Portage, I was everybody’s interpreter. If anyone had to visit the doctor, I tagged along. Anyone gave birth, I was called. Finally, I decided to work. My first job was in a nursing home 18 miles away in Eagle Lake. It was run by nuns, they were so delighted to have me. I didn’t always punch in my time- they could see that I also enjoyed being there and worked hard. I used to take good care of the elders. Most of them were French. Then one day, they asked me if I wanted to do some training for activities for the seniors. After taking the training, I became the Activities Director. I taught them to sew, knit, exercise, etc. It was fun! The patients really enjoyed it. First, they saw me as a foreigner, but slowly they warmed up to me. I stayed with a family there during week-days and paid them rent on a weekly basis. They were very kind. Initially I didn’t know how to drive, but later especially in the harsh winters- it made sense to continue staying since it wasn’t safe to drive. We were only met with kindness in Maine. Even before I started working, my neighbors would always check on me since I’d be by myself when the boys went to work on the weekdays. They called me Sue. Every small problem, they were there to help.
We were the first couple that got married in Maine. After our marriage, we went for a honeymoon to Quebec over a long weekend. It was six boys and me! Our friends had a good laugh. We always hung out together. They used to go to bars in the evening, I always tagged along with them. They loved to dance. I wasn’t much of a dancer
Did you get a chance to visit Portage since you left?
Momo Sonam: We went back to visit when Tsering (daughter) and Sonam (son-in-law) were living in Boston. Portage is still a small town. We met our old friends from back in the days and also went to look at our old apartment. We met a person there, perhaps the manager of the apartments. After hearing about why we were visiting, he happily showed us around. We took a stroll at the local beach where we used to hang out and went to a restaurant after that. It was only after eating we realized that it was already paid for by a couple who was eating there. They must have also heard our story. Isn’t that very kind? So we asked the restaurant owner for their home address and sent them a small gift when we got back home.
Tenzin Dazel is a film-maker based in Paris, France. Her works have been recognized for their compelling narratives of Tibetans in Exile. Though she has a background in Fashion Design and humbly admits to not having any formal training in films, one can see the works of an emerging artist who is perceptive and fully aware of film-making as a tool to claim agency over how our stories are told.
It wasn’t surprising to discover that her process of picking her actors were so painstakingly intense and meticulous because her films always leave such a potent impression on me. Satyajit Ray revealed in an interview, “Films gain in conviction by the absence of stars.” As a Tibetan film-maker it is challenging to find professional actors, let alone stars. But Dazel uses that to her advantage. The actors she selects are mostly non- professionals who often play the role of themselves in her films. Perhaps because of which, there is a sense of intimacy and immediacy with which their dialogues are communicated. They are at once de-exoticized, intensely familiar and uncomfortably real. Her work contributes to this much-needed and necessary dialogue on the expectations and contradictions of Tibetan identities in Exile.
Even though we never got a chance to meet in person, many phone calls and emails back and forth led to this conversation about her films, Seeds (2009) and Royal Cafe (2017) and the challenges and revelations that came along as a low-budget Tibetan film-maker.
(The conversations were conducted in English and Tibetan. I’ve translated and summarized them where necessary to the best of my ability).
When did you move to France and what made you get into film-making? I moved to France in the late 1990s to study Fashion Design at Strasbourg with a help of a French family. For one of our design class, we had to watch Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Coming from India where most of the films I’d seen were Bollywood or Hollywood films, I was totally confused with the film. The film was in Cantonese and subtitled in French. I didn’t understand both the languages at the time- I was clueless. The teacher asked us to observe the wallpapers and Maggie Chueng’s dress prints. We had to reproduce the prints in class after a week from our memory. I was so determined to do well that I went back to watch the film about ten times to memorize the exact print of each dress. I studied them so thoroughly and perhaps subconsciously I began to appreciate the content and have a wider understanding of the film, too.
I started thinking of making my own films because Fashion Design was starting to reach a phase where I felt blocked and drained. I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing. I felt this great urge to express myself & I couldn’t. So I left my job and found time to make my first film.
I don’t know if you’ll remember me- but I sent you a fan mail when I saw the trailer of your first film,Seeds. And you sent me a link to watch the whole film. I’ve been following your work since then. That’s a big compliment. Thank you. I was watching a lot of low-budget films and wanted to make a Tibetan film, which was different from the ones I was watching at the time. So I bought a 8mm camera from a vintage store and headed to India to make my first film. After the film was made, I sent it to Germany to digitize it. When we got it back, my husband (who was one of the actors) was so disappointed and advised me not to show it. I was unsure about the work, too, but I was obliged to show the film and had a responsibility towards the actors and my team. I read somewhere that showing your work even if it’s the worst helps get it all out of your system and one can start fresh with the next one. So with that, Seeds was out!
I loved the film. It was so refreshing to see a contemporary Tibetan film taking such an experimental approach. There’s an honesty with which it portrays Tibetans in Exile. I also loved that you used the the vernacular language. Perhaps that’s what made the characters comfortable in acting out their roles- they’re able to speak a language they are so fluent in.
Yes, because they are not trained actors, I noticed they were very conscious when they’re confronted with the camera. As a budget filmmaker, you have to look for strong characters. Someone you might find interesting and funny in real life might not be interesting at all in front of the camera. So I spent time observing them, trying to get to know them personally and allowing themselves to speak in their own dialects and accents. Most of them were from Tibetan boarding schools so have a very informal way of speaking with a lot of slangs. They’re very witty and funny with their language. At Homes School in Mussoorie, you have to survive by creating a come-back each time at ‘dabrey tse ya’. It’s like a rap battle in a way, an unrecognized poetic form that grew out as a mode of survival. So these are the kind of everyday subjects I want to explore in my films. My characters don’t speak in formal shey-sa on a everyday basis so having them speak that way would have sounded very staged.
Who are your favorite film-makers and how do they influence your films? I love Polanski, Alexandro Gonzalez, Hong Sang Soo, Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi, Jia Zhangke, Gus Van Sant, Tarantino, Lou Ye… and many more. I also love Iranian films. Artists in Iran who struggle with censorship in the arts are dealing with very similar issues Tibetan artists face in Tibet and to see the works that come out despite that censorship is so compelling and touching.
Then there are scenes from some films that leave a strong impression on your mind. I remember watching The Pianist. There was a particular scene in which Adrian Brody’s father gets slapped in the face by this Nazi man for walking on the wrong side of the road because he was a Jew. The level of inhumanity by the Germans was hard to watch. Later on when I stumbled upon an interview of Polanski, he explains how that really happened to his father. At that moment, I was really drawn to that aspect of film-making as a tool to document one’s own experiences.
What about Bollywood films? I love Bollywood! As a kid I wanted to be one of those back up dancers (laughs). I have a lot of childhood associations with it. Most of our generation grew up with Bollywood as the only source of entertainment. It used to be magical. All the songs and dance! But it doesn’t inspire my film-making. I do however, love the new generation of directors in India. Like Anurag Kashyap, Dipankar Banerjee, Vikramaditya Motwani. Kashyap shares a video on youtube called: Ten Commandments of Film-making Without a Budget. It’s like a manifesto for film-making- it’s been very helpful.
I’m wondering if neo-realism cinema has been an influence in the way you make your films. Especially in picking your locations which are mostly actual locations, casting of non-professional actors, and using real situations to evoke emotions in actors- a strategy Vittorio Di Sica and Satyajit Ray used. I am thinking of Dazel’s mother in Royal Cafe, whom we never see, only hear as she talks to Dazel over the phone. She has a very strong presence in the film. I am not aware of the movement since I have never formally studied film-making. Having no budget to begin with, your process of film-making is dependent on indoor locations that are mostly my friends’ homes, my own place or places you’re familiar with. Guerilla film-making tactics are useful. We also don’t have many professional actors in our Tibetan community in Exile- so you have to find other alternatives. I love the genuine emotions and realism the non-actors bring to the film. The voice actor who played the role of Dazel’s mother lost her husband not long ago. So it was a very difficult scene for her to enact. That’s when you realize that there is such a thin line between acting and reality. I spoke to her after the film if she was still comfortable that we used her voice in the film. She agreed to it but didn’t want us to reveal her identity.
Instead of looking for another story to tell, I think it’s brilliant that the film is about your own experiences and struggles you’ve had as a budget film-maker. It is a self-reflective film about the process of film-making- but you also throw light on the reality of Tibetans who play in your film. What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot? Yes, in that way it is biographical and also makes references to film-making. But some of characters were not biographical. For instance, my mother is more encouraging and open minded and not at all like the mother in the film. So some of the roles were fictionalized. The most difficult scene to shoot was indeed the end of the film where Dazel gets a call from her mother about her father passing away. That did happen. My circumstances were different in my own life. I had really wanted to be there and missing it has left a hole in my heart. I wasn’t comfortable doing this scene at all and had mixed feelings about it. A part of me wanted those scenes shot without me watching over, but I had to be there.
I really appreciate how strong and genuine your lead female roles are. I’m curious how you met Pema Shitsetsang, the actress who played the lead role in Royal Cafe? You mentioned she was the only professional actor in the film. I met Pema at a Tibetan Film Festival in Zurich. She really loved Seeds & approached me. At the time, it made me uncomfortable because I was being respected by someone who was a professional in the field. And here I was, an amateur film-maker and I was very embarrassed by it. But I thought of her when I wrote Royal Café because I wanted a strong female character to play my role. She was thrilled and immediately responded and approached me about dyeing her hair to look like me. It was that moment, when I felt like, yes! This is really happening! We spent a lot of time together so we could understand each other. Pema was brilliant and brought so much professionalism to the crew and this project all together. She made me feel like a real director (laughs).
You shot the film with three languages! You know, I am a stickler when it comes to languages and accents. I attempted to make it as authentic as I could. Though she was playing my role in the film, I didn’t want her to try and talk like me. Pema’s Tibetan is a more formal versus mine which is full of slangs I picked up from my upbringing in India. Being from Switzerland- she also speaks Swiss-German. I happened to have a good Swiss-German friend. So she played the role of Pema’s friend because I wanted to make this relationship they’re playing in the film as believable as possible. It was very difficult to control this aspect of the film because I don’t speak Swiss-German.
Royal Café feels like a sequel to Seeds. I remember the balcony scene from Seeds where a group of friends are talking about going abroad and starting a new life. In Royal Café, though they’re not the same actors, they are finally in the West but only to find themselves struggling with the same things: papers, jobs, etc. Royal Café and places like these become like a sanctuary of sorts, where Tibetans in exile gather to feel a sense of belonging. Yes, I like observing people and how they interact especially in these spaces. They have their guards down and become themselves. It’s in Royal Café where I found the characters for the second film. The title comes from the name of a small Sri-Lankan café that also serves Tibetan food. In general, I think my works are extensions of my own experiences. If there is a specific dialogue I want to try out, I say the line to someone in real life and listen to their response to it. Then it becomes part of the film. Often times, I ask them to be in the film. (laughs).
I loved the reference to Reservoir Dogs in the film. That was so clever and skillfully woven into the film! The boys really enjoyed doing that scene. I couldn’t afford to buy the suits. So I had to convince some of them. I told them that in Paris, they need to own at least one suit for special events. So two of the actors bought their suits from Zara, I think? (laughs). They hadn’t heard of Reservoir Dogs until I showed it to them. One of them asked me to lengthen the scene, he thought it was so good and deserved a longer take (laughs). I think we are so used to seeing ourselves portrayed as monks and nomads that it’s hard to envision ourselves in different roles. When you try and make films that reflect the lives of real Tibetans, everyone can relate to the film. You don’t have to go too far to look for inspiration.
Is there a reason why you shoot your films in both in B&W and color? With Seeds, it was shot with an 8mm camera because I was really drawn to that quality. I was very curious to explore it further. Being in Paris & studying fashion you get exposed to all these videos and images for fashion reference. I especially loved the sixties: Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy’s music videos. I didn’t understand Andy Warhol films, but I found it so cool.
In Seeds, she dreams in color as I wanted the color of the Tibetan flag and the color of blood dripping from her band to be obvious. In Royal Café, all the actual scenes are shot in color. But the way Dazel (our main character) pictures/imagines the scenes are all in black and white. It is also making a reference to Seeds, (my first film) which was mostly filmed in black and white. This is personal though, and I want viewers to see it however they want.
In Royal Cafe, the scene at the apartment where the actor who recently lost his mother is singing and dancing in grief to a thug-shey– that’s a very poignant scene. And the way the camera angle is placed makes it feel like we’re seated in the same room, watching him dance. That was heartbreaking! Do you plan/ draw out your scenes, rehearse before the filming? I try to draw out my scenes. I am not a technical person myself but I do study a lot of films I love. We were able to rehearse some scenes more than the others. The shot you mention was inspired from a scene in Jim Jarmusch’s film but of course in a Tibetan way. When I was little I remember my father dancing while he was drunk. He wasn’t a good dancer but he wanted us to dance with him. It used be those awkward moments where you’re scared but then you find yourself dancing with him because you don’t want to disappoint him. So some scenes are inspired from films with a mix of awkward memories and personal grief. But I have to add that if the film looks good cinematography wise, all the credit goes to Rémi Caritey, who co-directed this film with me and our Lighting Technician Manuel Brulé- an amazing photographer, too. Additionally, Cyrille Dufay helped us with the soundtrack and Gaël Simard worked on all the subtitling. I think we did a great job as a team and it wouldn’t have been possible without their immense contributions.
What are the challenges of being a Tibetan filmmaker? Firstly, it’s very hard to raise funds for film-making, but it’s even harder to sustain your living costs with film-making alone. Secondly, film making is a collective and collaborative work. Being in the exile community the disadvantage is that we are scattered around the globe. If you want to collaborate with Tibetan artists who live in different countries, it’s hard to bring the whole team together without a budget.
Any advice you’d like to share for aspiring film-makers? Be honest and true to yourself. In the Tibetan community, we create our own unwritten rules and expect filmmakers to make films that mostly address language and cultural preservation. While I understand the urgency for that, I also believe that in order for art to thrive we must take advantage of the freedom we enjoy and question the self-censorship we also impose upon ourselves.
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The exhibition, Bring it Home: (Re) Locating Cultural Legacy through the Body, curated by Meg Shiffler and Kevin B. Chen is a group show of ten artists that represents culturally diverse communities of the Bay Area and how they explore their sense of home and belonging. Though the show was laudable in its ambition, it reads as the same generic blueprint of “culturally diverse exhibitions” that are thematically built around popular assumptions about assimilation or migrant experiences. This becomes problematic because it dilutes the specificities of religious belief, history, and the politics of each artist and privileges the more digestible aspects of displacement. Tsherin Sherpa is one of the artists exhibiting in the show. He was a born and raised in Nepal. He studied in Taiwan and moved to the United States in 1998. As a thangka artist, he began his career painting traditional Tibetan deities. However, over the years he has embraced a more contemporary style. He still paints in the traditional Tibetan style, but more as an act of defiance to the dominant Western mode of art.
Both Hollywood and Western academics are over-interested in Tibetan culture. In fact, Tibetans are so discussed and analyzed that it often seems that Western concerns about Tibet are more important than Tibetan concerns about Tibet. It is only in recent years that Tibetan writers, poets, visual artists, and filmmakers have started producing work that represents the entanglements and the crisis of Tibet from the point of view of Tibetans—from those who have stayed in the country to those living in exile. This conversation with Tsherin Sherpa is an attempt to intervene and call out the problem with large omnibus shows like Bring it Home. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s that they miss out on the particular issues of a country like Tibet.
TT: I was looking forward to this show, because very rarely do Tibetan artists get a show in the Bay Area. Can you tell me more about your two pieces in the gallery? Did you make the pieces in response to the show?
TS: The two works in the show were not specifically made for the show; they were pieces that were in my own studio and one that was borrowed from a Bay Area private collector. The bigger piece, Fifty Four Views of Wisdom and Compassion (2014), was made for the Dhaka Art Summit in 2014. Since the exhibition was in Bangladesh, I did a research on the ancient ties between Bangladesh and Tibet. Atisha Dhibhankara, one of the key figures in the establishment of Tibetan Buddhism was born near Dhaka. He is especially recognized for bringing a teaching of the deity, Chakrasamara. Therefore, I took this deity’s image and fragmented it into 54 panels.
The other one is called, Baring it all (Machismo). This painting was a critique on our own Tibetan community. Our society is a very patriarchal one, and one can see it even in the representation of gods and deities in our traditional paintings. In the formal compositions of most Eastern paintings, the size of the figures speaks of the importance it has on the overall subject. Female deities are always smaller and in the background as compared to its male counterparts. And it’s still existent in our community and wanted to address that.
TT: I am curious if you have had many Tibetans come see the show.
TS: This is always been a struggle because it is not in our culture to got to museums and art galleries. So we’re always trying to invite as many Tibetans to come see the shows, but it becomes more of a social gathering without a deeper engagement with the art. However, I think Tibetans are being more receptive to newer and more contemporary forms of art. Some Tibetans are critical of my approach to using a technique that is reserved for religious art. But as an artist, it gives me a space to counter them. I am looking for situations to create work in and address them.
TT: Your father is a renowned thangka painter himself, and you have had a rigorous training in traditional thangka painting through him. Formally, one can still see it from the precision and skillfulness of the brushwork in all our paintings, but you also use the same technique to break away from traditional norms?
TS: My work is very much about commenting on that issue. I use sacred iconography in most of my works not only because of my training in traditional painting but also because in our community, there is such a strong distinction between the “sacred” and the “ordinary”. In my work, I juxtapose the sacred iconographies with the contemporary, mixing modern with the ancient. It’s my way of reacting to these hierarchies in our society that’s been created through the sacred.
TT: You’ve also had a chance to curate your own show in Berlin at Arndt Gallery. How was that experience of curating different from being included in a show where your work is curated?
TS: I met the gallerist during Art Basel Hong Kong. He was very interested to work with me so I suggested a group show of five Tibetan artists. It would be our first time showing in Berlin so I wanted to curate and put it together. I chose Gade, who is Tibetan and Chinese, Nortse, a Tibetan from Tibet, Kesang Lamdark who was raised by Swiss parents in Switzerland, Rigdol born in Kathmandu but grew up partly in Dharamsala and I, Tibetan and Sherpa. We’ve grown up in completely different environments and so I wanted the show to be about the artists’ Connections to Tibet/ being Tibetan based on our own experiences. So it would bring a complex range of work within our own Tibetan Contemporary Art. Contained Spirit (2014)
Gold leaf, Acrylic and Ink on Canvas
11″ x 14″
TT: Most Tibetans because of our current stateless situation make art that is very political, but for artists in Tibet, there are real consequences for making political work, especially if they’re Tibetan minorities in China. Most of them do address paranoia, and images of surveillance in their works. So it’s very interesting to have the exhibition in Ardnt, which is an Art gallery in former East Berlin with their own history of government surveillance and censorship of art.
TT: It’s been a struggle for both Tibetans in and out of Tibet. We’re third generation Tibetans in exile but I still feel like a first-generation migrant because constantly migrating from one place to the other makes you feel like a foreigner. I also think that the condition of statelessness becomes magnified when you’re experiencing it in isolation. When I got my citizenship three years ago, I traveled back to Nepal and India as a American citizen and realized this privilege I now had. Being able to move from country to country so easily made me extremely aware, in a physical and emotional way of the condition of “statelessness”.
TS: Yes. Recently, in 2011 I was in Dharamsala for an art residency. Prior to that, my visits were very brief and I didn’t have a lot of time to spend with the local Tibetans. Whenever, we were out going someplace, they were mostly nervous about a police checkpoint because they didn’t have any paperwork. And I’m talking about these kids either born or came to Dharamsala when they were very young. They’re constantly reminded in these subtle ways that they don’t belong here. That experience was very unique to me because while my father is Tibetan, my mother is Sherpa and I’ve always had a Nepali passport.
TT: I am often envious of immigrant communities that have a country to go back to, a geographical location to call “home” because they have a physical place and a country to go back to. We are marginalized even within those communities. And I think it’s this “statelessness” that keeps our work so preoccupied with issues related to identity-politics.
TS: Yes, I was having a conversation with an Indian artist during a residency I was part of. She thought identity had become such a clichéd topic in the art world especially amongst minority artists. That’s when I realized our marginality within the diaspora. She was obviously in a more privileged space to say that because at the end of the day, she had a passport and could still move around the world more freely than any stateless person. It’s a reality for many Tibetans.
Gouache, acrylic and gold leaf on paper
30″ X 24″
TT: So coming back to your own work, my favorite pieces are your paintings of the Tibetan Spirit. For me I don’t see so much of a deity as much as I see a masked person to conceal what’s beneath? It really embodies so much of the Tibetan who’s called out to constantly perform an identity that people expect to see. The more you look at the paintings, the more it unfolds. As a Tibetan, I really develop a relationship with this fictional character. It’s very memorable.
TS: After living in the United States for so long, I felt like there is always some projection of the “good” Tibetan. I found it humorous. So these paintings are very biographical, a self-portrait of sorts. And though the paintings are amusing on the surface, when I think more about it, it really saddens me. I want to share a story. In 2003, I was demonstrating traditional Tibetan work at the Asian Art Museum. During the lunch break I was having a typical cafeteria meal: sandwich, a bag of chips and coke when a lady walks up to me and starts apologizing for having corrupted me and felt sorry that I had to eat a packaged meal. I am sure it was sincere and well intentioned, but that response was so strange to me because she obviously didn’t realize that by 2003 sandwiches and chips and other fast food were pretty common even in Nepal. So my works are a direct reaction to how people view me and how I react to the peculiarities such as this.
TT: I wanted to ask about studio practice because your work is very labor intensive. Do you have studio assistants or you prefer to work on it yourself?
TS: Because of time constraints for some shows, you have to have some assistants. Firstly, it’s always difficult to relate your vision to someone else, but especially in my work which requires a specific skill set, its even more challenging. Luckily, both my Uncle and cousin are also traditionally trained under my father so I work with them very closely. However, I always do all the sketching and final touches myself. That initial part of the making and finishing it myself is important to me.
Gold leaf, acrylic and ink on linen
58 x 48 in
TT: Do you also use traditional materials for your work? What about gold leaf?
TS: I found a kind of acrylic that a lot of Japanese contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami and Makoda Aida were using for their work. It’s a very opaque material and gives a certain kind of texture, which I like. Traditionally, we use gold dust; but there is no tradition of using gold leaf in traditional Tibetan paintings. But after getting a chance to work at the Asian Art Musuem during my residency, I got a chance to see a lot of old Japanese paintings and screens using gold leaf and I wanted to combine that in my work. So I taught myself, experimented with different kinds and eventually led to liking the material a lot because conceptually the material was very appealing to me. Like a lot of my work, I liked gold for the duality it serves: a currency and also as a sacred material in religious practices. Normally when used in Japanese and Chinese paintings, they’re very careful as to not to crack it, but I intentionally crack the leaf when using it in my paintings.
TT: Do you feel you have a responsibility as an artist?
TS: Every one of us has a responsibility especially in light of our current situation both in and outside Tibet. But I have this privilege of this platform that not everyone gets so I use it to address and advocate for issues I want to talk about. But that also means being open to criticism, addressing them and also engaging with the world and community beyond my own.