The calligrapher and painter Phuntsok Tsering belongs to a new generation of Tibetan artists who attempt to bridge ancient Tibetan traditions and modern arts in order to express a contemporary Tibetan identity. The following is an interview conducted by TibetInfoNet in May 2006 with Phuntsok Tsering, who left Tibet in 1998 to live in Germany. The works of Phunstok Tsering are currently on exhibition in the new Tibet House in Frankfurt (Germany). (1)
Q: Phuntsok, first could you tell us about your personal background?
A: I was born in Duchung, between Gyantse and Shigatse. I lived there with my mother, my uncle, and my grandparents. [In old Tibet,] my grandfather was a governor (Tib: dzongpon) in that area. He spent about 17 years in prison because of that. He was well educated and I was very close to him. I went to school but at the same time I received a classical education, like Tibetan writing, memorisation, reading, etc. from him. Then, when I was about 13, I moved to Lhasa. I finished my elementary school there and also started to learn traditional Tibetan painting.
Q: You were interested in arts?
A: Yes, but also it was quite difficult for my parents to send me to school, so I learned painting to make a living. I learned from a private master in Lhasa for three years, his name was Tsering Dorji, 'TseDor'. His father also had been a governor before 1959, his parents had a very close relationship with my grandfather, they were in fact related. My master himself learned traditional painting from the painter of the Panchen Lama in Gunsang , Kachen Lobsang Phuntsog and some other teachers in Lhasa. He mainly painted inside houses; furniture and those kind of things, not thangkas [(traditional religious painted scrolls)]. My mother asked him to teach me and he accepted me as a student.
Q: So your mother encouraged you in studying the arts?
A: Actually, when I was in school, I used to sketch animals in school text books and all those kind of drawings. I always had an interest in learning painting and such things. And then my mother at that time thought I had to learn something which I could make money with in order to survive, and she asked me what I would like to do. I said I have in interest in learning to paint, and she said ok and arranged the rest. My mother had a very modern attitude. She had lots of difficulties in her life, for instance in the culture revolution, that is one point. But also she knew what she wanted to have from life and I think she reflected that to her children, to what her children would like to have in the future, so she tried to give opportunities to her children, so that they have a chance to get what they want, to get success.
Q: Did you get any kind of exposure to modern art in Lhasa?
A: No, not at all, it was very traditional. My teacher did not have any interest in modern painting, not like Gendun Choepel (2) or those people. It was just a job, not art as we understand it now. We would go to some family, paint in their houses, tables, furniture, objects etc. Also, no thangkas.
Q: But you did learn thangka painting?
A: i>Yes, but not from him exactly, I learned by myself from books.
Q: So, how did you find that, the normal traditional thanka painting?
A: It has its own historical value, but from my point of view now, although I enjoyed it, I will not do it again.
Q: So, after three years you started working on your own?
A: Yes and I did a lot of things after that. I worked in a school as a Tibetan teacher and I painted on Sundays and in the evenings. I also learned English. I worked for this school until I left Tibet in 1998. But before, I also studied Tibetan history for one year, traditional poetry and literature at the university in Lhasa. I started writing poetry; I have almost three books of poems from that time, they are not published. I tried to express my feelings in a traditional manner. When I went to monasteries for pilgrimage, I tried to describe the monastery, the landscape and all these things.
Q: After you left Tibet, did you work as an artist?
A: In Germany, I worked as a decorator for clubs for more than one year. It was a nice time but it was also difficult. After I reached Germany, I wrote a lot of poems which are related to Tibet, about missing Tibet and about being homeless.
Q: Were you interested in Politics?
A: Well, I always tried to preserve Tibetan culture and language. I'm very interested in Tibetan language and in the preservation of other aspects [of Tibetan culture].
Q: When did you start with modern, contemporary arts?
A: When I was in Tibet, I wanted to start something new, but it was more like a dream. [But then], I saw a lot of new arts in Germany [from which I developed my] new technique. I met many German artists and especially Elke Hessel. Then I tried myself. Of course that influenced me a lot [to develop new ways] into doing what I always wanted to do, to preserve Tibetan language. So I tried to reform the beautiful Tibetan calligraphy, just some small changes actually, and to relate it to my own poems which I had been writing for a very long time. The idea to incorporate collages came at some point by itself under diverse influences, but the basis is my poems. I made some attempt and I discovered that I liked it and so I simply continued. This way I can do something in order to preserve Tibetan language. So that's what I am doing right now.
Q: But will Tibetan society really see this as an appropriate way to preserve culture?
A: Of course some people might say it is destroying rather than preserving our culture, that's possible. But my point of view is that we have this old culture and we are living now, today, so I think we need something [appropriate] for today. This is not destroying, this is to enrich.
Q: Do you think this is something the average Tibetan will understand?
A: Actually, it's not my aim to make them understand. There are enough people who have enough intellect but need something to get inspiration from, stimulation. When they see my work, they might think, "Oh! This is an idea, I can do this too". Especially in Tibet, a lot of modern artists or students need this kind of stimulation, because they do not have as much exposure [to new ideas] as we have in western countries. I don't say my art is very good, but it can be stimulation for lots of people to get new ideas, to try new things for today. From my point of view, it is necessary. The old culture has its value, its history, but today we need something for the next generation.
Q: Why is there a need to create something new now?
A: From my point of view, every generation has its own special necessities. It is not only in arts, also in technical things; for instance, we use computers now, but we could also continue the old way. It is important for all Tibetans in different societies, wherever Tibetans are. But I have a special connection with the young generation and those people in Tibet because I was born there. When I think about Tibetan society, my thoughts go automatically to Tibet. From a cultural point of view, Tibet is very different from China; Tibetans have a great influence from Buddhism and these kinds of things. So for all these young Tibetan artists under Chinese schooling, I think my work - the new techniques I use - can help to make a difference between us and the Chinese. It is Tibetan modern art and it is different from Chinese if it is in Tibet, because the situation of Chinese and Tibetans is different. [Apart from] the script which is obviously different, the way of thinking and what I am trying to express is also different. I live in exile, so I try to explain my exile life in my work.
Q: How do you work?
A: I take all kind of things which have a meaning for me, from newspapers, from books, the tickets of museums I visit, and all these thing we use in our daily life. Then I connect them with my poems, so it tells a story I want to express to people.
Q: Are the poems you write now very different from those you used to write in Lhasa?
A: I still write some classical poems today but mostly, I write free style. I love reading magazines, books. I read a lot and take my inspiration from there. I also love the style of writing of Dhondup Gyal, Jangbu and those young Tibetan writers who write in the new style. I like also Tibetan novels from Tibet like Tashi Panden, Langdun, Paljor, Tashi Phuntsog, Horsang, Pema Boom, Beru Jigme. I also try to translate German classical poems into Tibetan. It is interesting, but it is also very tough because the way of writing and thinking are very different. The mentality is different. I get some help from German authors. I translated two poems from Heinrich Heine, one is "Lorelei", one is "All Thoughts Are Free", and it will be published in Tibet in a magazine. I think there should be some translations from western poems or other literature directly into Tibetan, not through Chinese.
Q: What do you think about the position of artists in contemporary Tibetan society?
A: It is quite hard. Tibetan artists are very young and the readers are also young. I think we need time to get really into Tibetan contemporary art. There is not much difference in Tibet and in exile in this regard. In exile, we are much more free, because you can paint, you can express whatever you want. But in Tibet, certain things you cannot do. For instance, if you write something, related to politics or even about the future of Tibetan language, it is difficult. It is difficult to present it in any kind of artistic way. So, in exile, we have more freedom.
Q: What are the main issues or topics you deal with in your art?
A: I tried to express my own feelings and experience, my daily life. I want to make it more lively. I also try to reflect how I see the word.
Q: Would you say this is an non-political approach?
A: I am not sure. Because I am a Tibetan, of course, I am an artist, but I live as a political refugee, this is my status. So, instinctively, my approach is political because I express things about my own life, my experience as an exile.
Q: You also created your own seal for your works?
A: There is a tradition for that in China, in Japan and other places in Asia. Not so much in Tibetan calligraphy but seals were known in Tibet too. So, I took up this influence, but I didn't want to have a seal with my name, so instead I used the Tibetan word "rangwang" (freedom). I was thinking of what I need most and freedom came to my mind. So, from an artistic point of view, it means freedom of art. In classical art, if there is a seal on a scripture, it means there is nothing to change or add to it. It is like that. I took up the seal, but I use it, [in contrast] to express freedom. I want to express the need for freedom in art in the way I move in new directions and change classical calligraphy.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say in particular to your fellow Tibetan artist?
A: We Tibetan contemporary artists have to work together more, exchange views; we have to see more exhibitions, particularly of western art, and it is very important that Tibetan society gives more feedback to artists. It can be positive or negative feedback. If the feedback is negative, then there is a chance to improve. If there is no feedback, then there is no interest. There is some interest for arts in Tibetan society, but not as much feedback as in the west. It is very important to get feedback. Negative feedback is important for artists who try to develop something, improve something.
© 2006 TibetInf...
1: India-based Phayul and the Tibetan website Tibetcul, in the People's Republic of China (PRC) recently reported on Phuntsok Tsering's exhibition. The exhibition will last until 25 June 2006 (see also www.tibethaus.com)
2: Gendun Choepel: Historian, writer, painter and at times political activist, originally from Labrang, Amdo (Chin: Xiahe, today in Gansu province). He travelled extensively through India in the first half of the 20th century. On his return to Tibet, his non-conformism and his political views brought him difficulties with the conservative establishment and he spent time in prison. He died disillusioned in the early 1950s. Gendun Choepel was probably the first Tibetan painter who incorporated Western and early Indian influences into his art.