Review: Yakpo Collective Transcends Boundaries, Creates New Possibilities in Virtual Exhibition
Note: I do not consider myself an artist and not even particularly visually oriented, and so I apologize in advance to the artists discussed within this piece if I do not do your work justice. I would love to talk with any of you further. Opinions in this piece are my own as an independent cultural commentator and do not reflect those of the artists or of Yakpo Collective.
In fall 2019 I volunteered with Yakpo Collective in the lead-up to their first party in New York City, where the collective is based and where I was living. The time I spent with the team talking about the motivation behind the collective, seeing how fiercely they advocated for Tibetan art and artists, how they approached obstacles confirmed for me what is true about many Tibetan initiatives: They are formed and brought to fruition by sheer bhoepay (Tibetan) will.
I have written elsewhere about how witnessing Tibetan art changed me.
I never expected to have my experience as the child of a Tibetan immigrant born and raised in the west to be reflected back to me, and this is part of what Yakpo Collective’s recent exhibition, Transcending Boundaries begins to address.
Yakpo Collective, the first Tibetan art collective formed in our now-global diaspora, leveled up once again with their October 2020 exhibition Transcending Boundaries. Many Tibetans, myself included, are obsessed with boundaries (and transcending them), with good reason: they have a huge bearing on our life possibilities. As I have written about previously, we end up finding each other, but often we are scattered, distanced, and shaped by forces beyond our individual control. Every Tibetan has a different relationship to place and movement, a unique story. The Transcending Boundaries exhibition explores these stories.
Breadth of Tibetan Creativity
The exhibition featured a startlingly wide array of Tibetan artists and experiences, with artists whose origins range from across Tibet and the diaspora. Spanning too the range of genres, the exhibition truly showcased the depth and breadth of contemporary Tibetan creativity. The show is even intergenerational, with seasoned artists like painter Losang Gyatso la in Virginia and newcomers like digital artist Kalnor, based in Tibet.
The exhibition also gives space to a balance of artists whom Yakpo has showcased before, while also introducing a new group of artists. I was particularly stunned by the bold colors and shapes of painter Yangdzom Lama (@yanguava on Instagram) and the poignant, slow-burn storytelling of filmmaker Kunga Choephel, both of whose work was completely new to me.
As I reached the section of this review in which I discuss the featured works, I realized that each individual piece deserves its own essay, which sadly this review cannot contain. I apologize sincerely to the artists whose works are not mentioned here. There was no way to elegantly include all that needs to be said about you all. I have instead described a few notable features from the exhibit. You can browse Yakpo Collective’s highly active Instagram page for posts about featuring each artist to learn more about them and their work, or read the exhibition catalog here.
Belgium-based art student Tenzin Rabten’s Saving the Yak Before It Disappears evokes celebrated, ground-breaking Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden, with its now-iconic red balloon in the center, as does contemporary Tibetan art icon and Tsering Nyandak’s Balloon.
Rigzin Taring’s (@sweetmomostudios on Instagram) Super Tenzin World evokes bhoepay alternate universes, worlds, and futures.
Tenzin Dawa’s (@lettering_in_tibet on Instagram) Lettering in Tibet series does one of the things I first loved about Tibetan artists like Gonkar Gyatso: reimagines traditional styles with modern western iconography, my favorite of the series this time with a Chicanx twist, demonstrating the interconnectedness of symbols and visuals.
Khenzom Alling’s (@khenzart on Instagram) Wrath and He Told Me to Do It explore 21st-century Tibetan selfhood.
I love Phuntsok Lhagyal’s (@phunarts on Instagram) art so much that I purchased a piece for my own home. His work often plays with pre-existing classics, a featured untitled painting evokes Dedron’s masked Tibetan Mona Lisa and its predecessor, as well as Tibetan Gothic.
Sonam Tshedzom Tingkhye’s (@tshedzom on Instagram) An Offering, featuring the iconic verse by Tsangyang Gyatso, affirms for me this: across Tibet, across the diaspora, there is a generation of Tibetan artists, committed to their art, creating now, today.
Agentic Bhoepay Space
I have clocked a significantly lower number of careerist non-Tibetans orbiting around Yakpo in comparison with other Tibet events and initiatives, and I wonder if it has to do with the fact that it is an explicitly Tibetan space, prioritizing exclusively Tibetan artists. There are roles for non-Tibetans, of course, but they are supporting and background roles, and they are mostly other young, creative, New Yorkers of color.
If the space is negotiated by, the boundaries drawn and their transcendence chosen deliberately by multi-cultural, resourceful, creative Tibetans accustomed to negotiating the global, what place is there for the non-Tibetan who wishes to study or in some other way consume us without our consent? For those who position themselves as experts?*
Yakpo illustrates Tibetan capacity and the ways that it is manifesting itself in a new generation of diaspora Tibetans (which, based on my limited observation and knowledge, has an equally dynamic counterpart inside Tibet). The initiative is Tibetan-run and led from start to finish. It normalizes something that should have, in my opinion, never been remarkable in the first place. Yakpo’s success, like the many other Tibetan-led initiatives (Made in Exile -@madeinexile on Instagram- and Studio Tenjung -@studio.tenjung on Instagram- in the arts alone), demonstrate once again that Tibetans do not need others to open doors. We just need other people to get out of the way.
This is just one example of many demonstrating what Tibetan creativity can do. A lesson I first learned during my time as a volunteer and then staff at Machik is that a dedicated group of Tibetans can do anything we choose, in seemingly impossible circumstances.
A group of Tibetan artists curating an exhibit for Tibetan artists truly transcends boundaries. In this exhibition, each artist is who they truly are. Perhaps because art, especially Tibetan art, lends itself to exploration and truth-telling, there is little to no grandstanding or tired tropes in this work. I sincerely look forward to Yakpo’s next exhibition and all future endeavors, and most of all, I wish this for every Tibetan: wandering from room to virtual room, futures reflecting back at them.
*If you are inclined to argue with me or other Tibetans about the existence of such people, please instead see The Costume of Shangri-La: Thoughts on White Privilege, Cultural Appropriation and Anti-Asian Racism by C Michelle Kleisath and enter into dialogue there.