This week provides a rare opportunity to hear the story and view the work of Tenzin Norbu – artist, hereditary lama, and social entrepreneur of Dolpo, Nepal – who divides his time between his mountain community, a studio and gallery in Kathmandu, and traveling around the world to promote his art and the work he does to support his community. He will present at talk at the Trace Foundation at 132 Perry Street in New York at 6:30 p.m. on January 12. He will also be in residence at Dartmouth College from January 17-31, where he will give talks and hold painting demonstrations.
Norbu studied traditional painting as well as Buddhism from his father, following a lineage that dates back more than 400 years. He focused particularly on thangka, a kind of painting on cotton, or silk appliqué work, featuring Buddhist deities, scenes and images. Norbu’s repertoire ranges from traditional imagery to contemporary depictions of daily life, religious practice, and landscapes, including the glaciated peaks of his home region of Dolpo and of Tibet. His paintings were highlighted in the 1998 feature film Himalaya (Caravan), the only Nepali film to have been nominated for an Academy Award.
Over the past twenty years, Norbu’s work has exhibited widely, from Kathmandu and New York City, to Aarhus (Denmark), Monaco, Lucerne, Paris, Osaka, Tokyo, and Thimphu (Bhutan). Norbu was a featured artist in Transcending Tibet, an exhibition organized by Trace Foundation, and Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond, held at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. Norbu is the illustrator of five children’s books, including Clear Sky, Red Earth: A Himalayan Story, a project on which he collaborated with Sienna Craig and which has been published in both English and Tibetan.
In collaboration with international NGOs and the local community, Norbu helped create the Kula Mountain Primary School, which provides free education to over one hundred children in this remote region. Norbu is also leading the restoration and repair of cultural heritage sites across Dolpo, including murals in the famous Shey Gompa, featured in Mathiessen’s Snow Leopard.
The Dolpo region consists of high glaciated peaks, broad meadows, and several valleys which descend from the crest of the Himalayas. It comprises one of the most forbidding environments in which humans live, and yet, the region has supported thriving populations of agriculturalists and pastoralists for at least a millennium. For centuries, the people of Dolpo engaged in trade, bartering across ecological zones across the Himalaya and into Tibet; in this exchange flowed not only utilitarian goods and products but also religious teachings and texts, medicinal plants, and high-value commodities like precious minerals and animal pelts.
In the past two decades, trade in yartsa gunbu (caterpillar fungus, known also as Cordyceps sinensis or Ophiocordyceps sinensis) has dramatically transformed Dolpo’s rural economy. The use of yartsa gunbu in Tibetan and Chinese medicine has a long history, but today it has become a widely-traded and fetishized commodity: with an eight-fold increase in value (from $700 to $5800 per pound) caterpillar fungus has become the mainstay of household economies across the Tibetan Plateau and neighboring highlands like Dolpo. However, the demand for the fungus has been linked to violence and environmental degradation and has generated concerns over resource sustainability.
In Dolpo, in particular, the yartsa gunbu harvest has been sharply contested and subject to less regulation than in other Himalayan enclaves, like Nubri in Gorkha District. The impacts of climate change and habitat modification on this high-value but ultimately vulnerable natural resource are unknown but sure to disrupt an economy and, arguably, mindset in Dolpo that has become centered on the “Himalayan Viagra.”
Norbu’s art is keenly attuned to global realities – like nuclear arms and fossil fuel-induced climate change – even as he remains firmly rooted in his Buddhist view and Himalayan perspective on life and art. His modern but timeless interpretations of impermanence, chaos, and the quotidian joys and magical moments, are universally stirring.
Tenzin Norbu will be giving a public presentation at the Trace Foundation in New York on January 12 and will be in residence for two weeks at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he will be visiting classes in anthropology, religious studies, and studio art, along with exhibiting his work at the Baker-Berry Library, the Black Family Visual Arts Center, and the Russo Gallery.