by Lekey Leidecker
I first saw myself reflected in an art exhibit at age twenty. I dragged my family down the 7 train line for Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art at the Queens Museum in New York City. The first all-women Tibetan artists exhibition, titled མ། (En: Her) opened on September 24, 2017 at Scorching Sun Art Lab in Lhasa. I am embarrassed to admit that my first reaction (after delight) was surprise that enough female Tibetan artists existed to create an entire exhibition. I share this story to illustrate that, like many Tibetans of my generation and circumstances, our interactions with Tibetan creativity are often so limited that we don’t believe it exists. Nothing could be further from the truth, which Machik Khabda aims to highlight and celebrate!
Imagine, then, my surprise and excitement to learn about a Tibetan woman artist who has been boldly creating works of self-expression for over twenty years: Monsal Pekar Desal. Born in Atro, Gaba (near Jyekundo) in Kham, she has been a constant vocal advocate for Tibetan women, a prolific creative, and vastly underrecognized.
We were thrilled to see how the inaugural Khabda generated excitement and energy to engage with and celebrate the works of some our community’s most brilliant contemporary creative minds.
In the lead-up to the April 20, 2019 Khabda, my social media flooded with the compelling works and words of this Tibetan woman creative, and so many communities engaged with the immense talent, conviction, and energy of Pekar. We on the Machik team look forward to hearing more of your reflections from each of the 22 Khabdas that took place over the course of the day, all over the world!
In DC, two main intertwining threads emerged from our discussion: identity and creativity, particularly Tibetan. Our lively conversation over samosas ranged from a discussion of aesthetics and self-expression to personal anecdotes of interactions with Pekar.
Dr. Losang Rabgey la, Machik’s Executive Director and Co-founder greeted and thanked participants for joining the discussion and explained the impetus for choosing to highlight Pekar’s work: she has persisted pursuing her creativity despite incredible odds, and her work has not yet gotten its due recognition.
Prominent Tibetan-language writer Tsering Kyi la, who provided the initial spark to focus this month’s Khabda on Pekar, shared her thoughts on Pekar’s work and significance in today’s world. The two women met when Tsering Kyi first arrived in India from Tibet. In our Khabda, Tsering Kyi shared how Pekar’s support helped ease her transition into a new society and culture, a transition that Pekar herself went through. Tsering Kyi explained that Pekar’s work and life asks us all to embrace women’s bodies while removing the stigma and objectification with which we typically regard them.
This point led to a fascinating discussion of the ways that nudity was or was not taboo in traditional Tibetan society and in art, and how the influence of India and Christianity in exile and of dominant Chinese culture inside Tibet are changing this.
As accomplished Tibetan artist Losang Gyatso la (browse his excellent Facebook page New Tibet Art here) highlighted at our DC gathering, Pekar is even more astonishing in her uniqueness because of her background. Her path to art as a form of creative self-expression was anything but straightforward: her region in Tibet is relatively far from the typically considered “centers” of Tibetan cultural production such as Lhasa and parts of Amdo (i.e. Rebgong, a well-known hub of writers and artists). Additionally, while her father was an accomplished thangka painter and sculptor, during the repressive years of the Cultural Revolution he hid his talents even from his own daughter. Her own artistic training in a Socialist-Realist style at Northwest Minorities University in Lanzhou would have contrasted greatly with the traditional Tibetan aesthetics which likely flourished in her home community.
With her background in mind, Gyatso la reflected that Pekar’s art has often conveyed a sense of struggle, of being caught between worlds and identities, but has lately taken on a new sense of freedom and joyfulness, as reflected in the series of paintings featuring Tibetan women that she completed in 2018. The accompanying piece of writing, originally in Chinese, translated for Khabda by Jin Ding, is an urgent call for women to embrace themselves fully and to “rise” from the countless obstacles we face --from patriarchal violence to the pain and challenge of motherhood-- to “with our own sisterhood and wisdom, kindle light for other women.” Dr. Losang Rabgey la pointed out that her drive for social change and gender equity, often expressed through her art, derives from her own life experiences and highlighted a section in her 2004 book Women's Status in Tibetan Society: Don't Laugh at Women's Hardships where Pekar describes the pain of witnessing the abuse that one of her close friends experienced after her marriage.
“All art is essentially self-portraits”
Tibetans in and outside Tibet face many challenges and rapidly shifting contexts, and contemporary Tibetan artists gift us with their negotiations of a complex world and helps our society to self-reflect and to grow. Gyatso la’s insights into Pekar’s creative and stylistic development from an artist’s perspective affirmed what I already felt: her work reflects her own challenges and struggles faced as a Tibetan, a woman, and a creative individual, and that is part of what makes her work so valuable.
Some may ask why it even matters to feel reflected in contemporary media at all, and many have explored this answer much more astutely than I can. What I can say is that encountering Pekar’s art has affirmed my impulse not just to create, but to create on my own terms. Like all good art, Pekar’s work may challenge or surprise us, but shows us something about ourselves. For a Tibetan woman like me, the value of that is immeasurable.
Shining Vaginas and Feminine Power
As we continue to build Bhoepa spaces that actively include people who are not reflected in a male-female binary, I think that Pekar’s call for unapologetic Bhoepa authenticity and her celebration of femininity can bolster us for that necessary and exciting work, providing a burst of energy for the ongoing gender equity work in Tibetan communities. We were thrilled to have Drokmo, a Dharamsala-based NGO working for gender equity in Tibetan communities, convene a Khabda in Dharamsala, and so delighted that Pekar’s daughter, currently a student at Tibetan Children’s Village, could attend and share her own insights into her mother’s life and work!
We closed our Khabda with a wonderful painting session led by painter (and former Machik Intern!) Sam McKeever, who led the group on a session focused on color as therapy and the freeing properties of self-expression.
There is so much that remains to be explored about her vast body of work, and we are fortunate that she is still active inside Tibet today. As Dr. Tashi Rabgey la highlighted in our discussion, not so much as an essay has been published about Pekar’s work in the last fifteen years! Her work, given due attention and consideration, will influence and shape future generations of Tibetan creatives.
In the meantime, I’m waiting for whatever budding Bhoepa filmmaker will make the first feature film about Pekar’s life!