Historically, indigenous Tibetans were largely nomadic people, and Tsherin Sherpa is no exception. Born in 1968 to Tibetan parents living in Nepal, Tsherin exemplifies a truly modern form of nomadism, both fraught with challenges and rife with opportunity. Through his artwork, Tsherin delicately traverses the space between Tibetan and Western cultures, the past and the present, and the serene and the provocative.
As a child, Tsherin lived with his family in Nepal and attended private school. At age 12, he also began a two-year course of study at Ka-Nying Shdruo Ling Buddhist monastery. That same year, his father Urgen Dorje Sherpa, a master Tibetan painter, began to teach him the art of thangka, a traditional form of painting on cotton depicting a Buddhist deity, mandala, or scene. Tsherin recalls, “My first job was assisting my father in painting projects for his work.”
After completing high school, Tsherin traveled to Taiwan to study Mandarin and com- puter science. This time, he says, “was a rare opportunity for me to engage and interact with various different people from all walks of life.” When a friend of his mother’s invited him to visit the United States, Tsherin accepted the offer, traveling to Sausalito, California and adapting to yet another place and culture. He stayed in the United States, ultimately meeting the woman who would become his wife and settling with her in Oakland, California.
Once again, being Tibetan but living outside of Tibet presented Tsherin with unique challenges. In an interview with the Asia Art Archive in America in 2011, he elaborated: “I grew up in Nepal, and I had to learn about the Nepalese way… In Taiwan, and also in America…I’m constantly transforming myself for the place in which I spend time. I think Tibetans are quite good at it because we come from a nomadic tradition. We are constantly assimilating ourselves into new environments, and are taught to be able to do so.”
Over the years, Tsherin continued to refine his traditional thangka painting skills. However, as he tried to balance being Buddhist and Tibetan within the context of a completely different culture and place, he began to think of his art in a new way. “For many years as a tradi- tional artist,” he says, “I was making images that were pre-defined in Buddhist scriptures, for the purpose of meditation and rituals. I wanted to make my art as a voice against oppression and injustice, and in the contemporary context.”
In 2007, Tsherin set out on a new artistic journey. While his paintings continued to center on traditional Buddhist iconography and to include many of the stylistic elements he learned from his father, they also began to express the complexities of his modern nomadism.
In one work, “Oh My Goodness,” Tsherin depicts a Tibetan figure wearing underwear spotted in the style of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings; the figure is surrounded by a halo of natural and material images coexisting in the figure’s mind. In another,“YourMove,”a traditional deity painted in black and white holds a brightly colored Rubik’s cube adorned with a host of symbols including a swastika, a smiley face, a grenade, a dollar sign, and more.
This blending of cultures and epochs has struck a chord with art collectors and the public; his works have been shown to acclaim in galleries in the United States, England, India, Nepal, China, and Italy. Tsherin’s work has also garnered attention for its thought-provoking depictions of a culture at risk of being subsumed by external forces.
Tsherin hopes his art will help to bring light to what he calls “the non-duality that cuts through race, religion, and the boundaries we often create to divide ourselves.” He says his art has the same meaning as the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who says, “I am first a human being; second, a Buddhist; and finally, a Tibetan.”