As published in The Week, on May 18, 2012. All photographs courtesy of the artist.
Chonyi Dolma glances upwards. She looks somewhat concerned and curious. She’s only eight years old, but the layers of colors appear like wrinkles on her face.
At first sight, this oil-on-canvas painting could be any other simple portrait. But once you read the text on the left that accompanies the work, you see beyond her pensive gaze and into the memories of her 73-year-old grandfather, Nyima Dukdhak.
Dukdhak was in his late 20s when he was forced to flee from Bongpa in Tibet and it is this story that you read alongside Chonyi’s portrait.
Dukdhak lost his elder brother to starvation during the escape before he arrived in Mustang, Nepal, some 10 days later, with nothing. At present, he holds a Refugee Card and lives with his wife, daughter, two granddaughters and a grandson at the Tashi Palkhiel Tibetan Refugee Settlement in Pokhara.
He prays for Tibet’s freedom everyday and worries for his grandchildren’s future.
It’s the weight of this history that Spanish artist Andrea Lopez Iglesias has attempted to portray in her painting of Chonyi. Titled “The New Faces of Tibet,” Andrea spent six months at the Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute in Pokhara making a total of 14 portraits of children.
Born in 1986 in Pontevedra, Spain, Andrea first came to Nepal 1.5 years ago.
“I met the founder of Pema Ts’al Monastic Institute while I was staying in New York,” shares the artist who completed her degree in Fine Arts from the University of Salamanca in 2009.
Khenpo Pema Wangdak La asked her to come to Nepal and paint as a volunteer in the Institute’s new gumba. While volunteering in Pokhara for two months, she learnt about Tibetan painting and Buddhist philosophy.
“At that time, I knew about the Tibetan story but I didn’t know about families and refugees,” she explains and adds, “I found it hard to understand that they have no form of identification, no names and no passports, which are normal things for me but not for them.”
The project thus evolved as a process to document the stories of people living in refugee camps through her paintings.
Andrea returned home and came back to Pokhara in September 2011 with around 70 kilograms of art materials, and set on working from day one at the Institute. With the help of monks as interpreters, she went to nearby settlements and talked to families.
“I started out with four families, after which painting and collecting stories went hand in hand,” she says. The interviews were recorded in Tibetan and later translated and put together into essays in English by Alba Sola Garcia, also from Spain.
Alba stayed in Nepal for two months collaborating with Andrea on the project as a writer. The end result will be a book with images and texts.
The stories come from five different settlements – four in Pokhara and one in Kathmandu. The Home Department of the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, India, lists a total of 11 Tibetan settlements in Nepal.
“Their names (grandchild and grandparent) and stories have been written in Tibetan on the back of the canvas by young monks,” Andrea emphasizes the importance of the textual narratives that form the basis of her visual narrative. Each painting has been titled after the child’s name and that too is equally crucial. “In a way, it’s like giving a small identification to them,” she puts in.
Reading the stories next to the paintings at the Siddhartha Art Gallery, you try to comprehend the struggles and horrors the grandparents lived through, and at times, it’s next to impossible to imagine it all – dodging bullets and bombs to walking for days without food and shelter.
All the stories, except for one which is of a father and son, are of grandparents and their struggles to survive, their longing to go back home, and their prayers for a better tomorrow. Most of them are now over 70 years old and have been in Nepal since their mid-20s.
“The portraits are based on photographs that I took during the interviews,” Andrea reveals. The expressions and moments are thus of the grandchildren listening to their grandparents telling their stories.
Andrea has previously worked on a series of portraits of children in Mexico.
“I was volunteering at an orphanage then. But in my works, I wasn’t concerned with the personal stories of the children,” she states and continues, “I chose to work with children in this series, and in particular their faces, because the hopes of these families are their kids.”
While the significance of these paintings are in their stories, as works of art in themselves, Andrea’s portraits draw you in with their larger than life sizes (39”x39” and 58’x58”), with their big swerving strokes that let your eyes wander within the square compositions and with their harsh light and raw colors.
All of these, combined, make you contemplate on the stories and memories that the faces hold within.
The New Faces of Tibet will be on show at the Siddhartha Art Gallery in Baber Mahal Revisited, Kathmandu, until May 24. The exhibition is set to open in Spain in September.