My Identity

Jacki Elgar

My Identity is a personal and political self-portrait. Through four photographs, it suggests that even as the artist experiences 20th- and 21st-century change, Tibetan culture remains a constant, across national borders and time.

In each image, Gonkar Gyatso assumes the pose of Tsering, the 13th Dalai Lama’s senior painter, as photographed in 1937 by Charles Suydam Cutting, the first Westerner to enter the Tibetan capital. Gyatso has personal experience with outside views of his culture: he grew up in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Under Chinese rule he received his art training in Beijing, and in the 1990s moved to Dharamsala, India, home of the current Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government. He was then invited to study in London and became a British citizen.

As the four images detail Gyatso’s relocations, the imagery on his traditional Thangka painting easel also changes: from the Shakyamuni Buddha to Mao Zedong, to a complex scene of the Potala Palace with the Dalai Lama as the rising sun and the ninth-century stone stele with words of peace between Tibet and China, to a new-age mandala. In the fourth image, the word “Tibet” is tattooed on Gyatso’s bicep in traditional script.

The work is autobiographical for the artist, yet it also makes a poignant political comment about the plight of displacement faced by Tibetans. Now 50 years since the start of the Cultural Revolution that aimed to eradicate Tibetan culture, My Identity speaks both to this history and to our contemporary moment. In the current world refugee crisis, whose culture is preserved or erased? As young people search for their voices to be heard in our digital age, who validates their identities? And what is the role of art and tradition in our “global” age?

Update November 8, 2016 7:25 pm

Among the 409 likes and individual comments on this Instagram post, here is a highlight:

jesuscarlos745 Culture is really changing every where, globally speaking. Environment and circumstances are forcing the changes.

Jacki Elgar is the Pamela and Peter Voss Head of Asian Conservation.