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!
Tashi deleg everyone! My name is Tenzin Chokki and I am a Program Associate at Machik. From the entire Machik team, I would like to welcome you all to our first post on the Khabda Blog.
A month ago, we launched Machik Khabda as a global platform for locally hosted gatherings where people come together to share conversation on the contemporary cultural production scene and cultural products originating from the Tibetan plateau. For our inaugural Khabda, we launched the program by highlighting Enticement: Stories from Tibet, the first English-language anthology of short stories written by Pema Tseden, and translated by Michael Monhart and Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani. A very special thank you to the two translators who worked on this exciting English-language resource for those who do not read literary Tibetan or Chinese. If you haven't yet read the Khabda interview with the translators, do check them out here!
Since Machik Khabda is a brand new program, we weren't sure what to expect. The resulting stories, photos, videos and debrief meetings that came out of the 1st Khabda gathering showed us that we have had a successful venturing into creating another global space for meaningful conversation on Tibet. We could not have done this at all without the generous spirit of all local hosts from around the globe. In total, the first Machik Khabda gatherings occurred in 16 different locations, ranging from the Australian continent to various cities across North America.
Here in Washington DC where we are located, local folks gathered for a conversation and discussion of "Orgyan's Teeth," the featured story for our first Khabda. In the first ten minutes of our chat, two young professionals brought smiles across the room as they read the first few lines of the story in the three main dialects of the Tibetan language. Personally, it was such a delight to listen to the variation in sound and texture of the language especially since "Orgyan's Teeth" was originally written in Tibetan. As per the request of some local hosts, we made sure that people could access the story, both in English and Tibetan, and through this experience, I had a lovely time reconnecting with my mother tongue. I hope it brought others a similarly richer experience engaging with the work of a contemporary creative from Tibet.
From the backend of our work -- developing the online content, coordinating logistics for a program, connecting with our gracious hosts to organize and actuate the local programs -- I can say simply that the experience has been splendid. As local hosts kept updating me on the time and location of their gatherings, the only thing I could hope for was a chance to be there at the Momo Sakhang in Chennai or at the local park in Newcastle or at the personal home of our host in Santa Fe where folks gathered over bowls of thukpa and conversation on Enticement. If only there was a machine that could transport me across time and space, it would come in handy for being able to join all the Khabda groups, meet people from a diverse set of local communities, share important conversations on the contemporary cultural landscape of Tibet, and of course, break bread together!
When we heard back from our hosts on how their individual Khabdas went, it became apparent that there are many reasons for why this platform needs to exist. Firstly, it provides a direct link to cultural knowledge that is originating out of Tibet and makes such knowledge more accessible to those of us outside of Tibet, be it a young Tibetan growing up in diaspora or a whole community of non-Tibetan friends. Several local hosts shared notes on the style and format of contemporary Tibetan literature after reading "Orgyan's Teeth," and found it amusing that the story could be easily understood and felt by the reader. A Khabda participant from Gyeongju, South Korea, shared the following remark, "Pema Tseden is the mouth of common Tibetans." Another Khabda-wa from Madison mentioned how "Orgyan's Teeth" gave an "honest disclosure and acceptance of culture, death, friendship and the hardships of life that are to come." Though he writes from the vantage point of a person raised on the Tibetan plateau, almost all collected reflections from the inaugural Khabda gatherings demonstrated how fluid and transferrable the themes and questions raised in Pema's writings are to any kind of human society in the world today.
Secondly, this platform makes it easier for anyone to continually engage with Tibet on a personal level. Almost all hosts came from urban lifestyles which derive on its own cycle of busyness. Although Tibet may have a special spot in our hearts and minds, we realize that it is quite hard to activate our consciousness and literally build a time in our day to pause and carefully consider what is happening inside contemporary Tibet. You (our local hosts) told us that Khabda acts as an easy medium for everyday engagement with contemporary Tibet that highlights human capacity, perseverance and the need to act in order to build a stronger future for Tibet. Our local hosts in Boston highlighted Pema's determination in using Tibetan in his writings and filmmaking and emphasized that there needs to be more innovative approaches to learning the Tibetan language, especially for the younger generations. We couldn't have been happier to hear that. If there is a way we can make it easier for people to continue to learn, think, and act for Tibet, then be rest assured that we will do everything we can to make that program grow and flourish.
Thirdly, Khabda emphasizes the human capital each of our communities carry, and brings forward the power that lies behind the transformational practice of gathering people together in advancing knowledge and action. Dr. Margaret Mead reminded us that "a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens" is the only thing that ever changed the world. We believe that Khabda is a form of collective organizing that can bring social impact and transformation, both within our local and global communities as well as within ourselves. Five years ago, when I was in my first-year of college, I was shocked when I heard of Machik and the work of the organization. Since time immemorial due to the guidance I received from my schools and parents, I have always felt a sense of urgency and responsibility for carrying forward the Tibetan spirit and pursuing meaningful solutions for our contemporary collective state of being. Machik's work amazed me because it made something that seemed so impossible a possibility for me, and this is mainly due to their ability to work directly with communities on the Tibetan plateau. I believe my first encounter and continued engagement with Machik's work is somewhat of a karmic fate, whereby various causes and effects join together to help me gain a more complex, nuanced understanding and reframing of contemporary Tibet. Khabda might not produce such big impact moments for you at the moment. But I am sure that as we continue this practice of gathering for thoughtful conversation, you will find that Machik Khabda creates a new space for growth and exploration as we seek our own better selves and a role in supporting the future of Tibet.
If you are still reading through until here, I just want to take a quick moment to thank you for your time. Your ongoing support for our work and long term mission makes it easier for us to tread ahead in uncertain times with courage, hope and clarity. If Machik Khabda sounds like a good fit for you, please feel free to sign-up to host a gathering in your locality or join one that may be already happening in your area. Our email contact is firstname.lastname@example.org and if you prefer phone, you can also call us at 202.536.4858. Once again, we are truly grateful to all our local hosts for making time and space for Khabda to become a reality - your passionate spirits and energies keep us going.
And we are just beginning!
Program Associate, Machik