Tibetan religious art finds new fans and collectors across China after decades in doldrums
Some older painters decry creeping commercialisation, but rising interest in the minutely detailed works called thangkas has led to a huge increase in their ranks
Her eyes riveted to the canvas, Wulan meticulously applies colour to an image of the Buddha, using pigments made of crushed pearls, turquoise and agate.
The 34-year-old is one of dozens of students at a school in Lhasa learning the medieval Tibetan art of thangka – minutely detailed paintings depicting Buddhist figures or symbols, usually on cotton canvas or silk scrolls.
But she is not Tibetan. Ethnically Mongol, she moved 2,500km to embark on seven years of studies.
The People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet in 1951 and the Communist government reviles the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, but the region’s traditional religious art is now increasingly being embraced by outsiders – including from China’s Han ethnic majority – as both buyers and producers.
“Thangkas are captivating a growing number of people,” says Wulan. “Traditional cultures are more and more recognised in China, which wasn’t always the case in the past, during the economic boom.”
In their heyday centuries ago, thangkas had patrons and practitioners in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and northern India, and in 2009, Unesco added them to its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, calling them “an integral part of the artistic life of people” on the Tibetan plateau.
Now there are more than 100 apprentices – including some Han Chinese – at Wulan’s Danba Raodan school, who get free tuition in return for helping their teachers with their paintings. The students spend 10 hours every day learning how to trace figures in pencil, wield delicate paintbrushes and apply pigment to canvas.
The revival comes after a turbulent past, including the Cultural Revolution which attacked religious traditions and iconography. “Beyond the destruction of artworks and monasteries ransacked, looted or burned, a lot of the expertise was lost. Many teachers disappeared or were in prison and could not train young people,” says Amy Heller, a Tibetologist and art historian based in Switzerland.
“Even after the Cultural Revolution, it was difficult. The censorship had been such for 10 years that people were reluctant to bring out their thangkas, for fear of being denounced.”
Many Tibetans accuse Beijing of wanting to dilute their culture and the Dalai Lama says Tibet is the victim of “cultural genocide”.
Beijing considers the Himalayan region an integral part of China – a view disputed by the Tibetan government in exile and some scholars – and retorts that it ended serfdom and brought development. These issues can find their way into art.
In 2014, Chinese tycoon Liu Yiqian paid a record US$45 million at an auction in Hong Kong for a 15th-century thangka tapestry believed to have been a gift from a Chinese emperor to a Tibetan Buddhist leader.
At the time, Liu said: “If you look at it from the perspective of politics and diplomacy in ancient China it is … of great importance, because 600 years ago Tibet was a part of China already.”
Once only made by artisans attached to Buddhist temples and monasteries and painstakingly produced according to strict rules, thangkas can now be created by anyone passionate about the art.
The vast majority of the Danba Raodan students are still Tibetans, but when it opened its doors in 1980 there were only 20 thangka painters in Lhasa, says its director, Tenzin Phuntsok, who inherited it from his father.
“Today there are a thousand. And nationally, about 10,000,” he says.
Each painting requires between one month to three years of work, depending on its size and complexity.
And while thangkas were traditionally offered to monasteries or sold to Tibetan families, the art has now secured a new, lucrative audience – Chinese collectors.
“They come from the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai, and are becoming more numerous,” says Tenzin Phuntsok.
As interest grows, prices have soared, rising 10 per cent a year according to the specialist Tiantangwu gallery in Beijing.
“The thangka of a novice teacher is already worth several thousand euros,” adds the director, whose own works sell for nearly 200,000 yuan (HK$230,200).
The older generation of painters “do not necessarily welcome this commercialisation”, acknowledges the 31-year-old, but says: “As a young person I find it inevitable. The main thing is to find a balance between the tradition and the market.”
Some specialists warn of wider risks.
After decades of frantic economic growth and materialism, “Chinese sense a need to fill a spiritual hole with religion”, says Wang Jingyi, a professor of art at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei and a market analyst.
“And they are drawn to Tibetan Buddhism, which has more colourful art than what you find elsewhere in China.”
But Chinese collectors’ “frenzy” for thangkasis “not necessarily beneficial for relations between Han and Tibetans”, he adds, as Han-owned galleries sometimes reap huge profits from the works of Tibetan painters.
“Ultimately, these are religious items,” he says. “If they are too commercialised, they will lose their religious identity.”