Thangka paintings get more popular after turning to market

"The Tibetan thangka industry ha experienced continuous development since the Reform and Opening-up policy, with an abundance of talented painters and a prosperous market," Yu Youxin, an expert judge of the 9th Tibet Thangka Art Fair and an elderly Tibetan artist said in an interview on November 7.  

"As a national-level intangible cultural heritage, the thangka industry is currently one of the best ethnic handicraft industries in Tibet," Yu said. He said this is closely related to the policy environment since the 1980s. The market economy and tourism industry have prospered in an unprecedented way, and social demand has promoted the revival and development of the thangka industry.

Yu Youxin believes that the most important things are the official certification of the major painting schools and having different levels of intangible cultural heritage inheritors that continue to pass down and promote the traditional skills of different thangka schools.

He said that the second most important thing is the discovery and cultivation of talented and more diversified thangka artists. In the past, the main model for cultivating thangka artists is mentoring between master and student or parent and child. In recent years, Tibet University has incorporated thangka art into its modern art school, and privately-owned thangka art schools of different sizes have also emerged, for example the Tibet Thangka Painting Institute, the Xuedui White Traditional Art School, the Tenpa Rabten Thangka Art School, the Amdo Champa Art School, and other thangka art educational institutions.

With this as its foundation, the Tibet Thangka Art Fair that is held regularly not only displays outstanding thangka works but also evaluates the different levels of thangka artists through strict technical competitions. There are currently 32 artists ranked in the first level, 48 artists ranked in the second level, and 67 artists ranked in the third level. Among these artists are many outstanding and young painters.

Referring to the cultivation of talented artists, Yu Youxin said that artist training in the Miantang, Qinzi, Karma Kachi, and Miansa thangka schools has been highly effective. According to statistics, there are more than 3,000 specialists engaged in the Tibetan thangka industry.


Champa Yangjen is drawing a piece of thangka painting. [Photo/China News Service]

Champa Yangjen is one of the few women working in the thangka industry in Tibet. She was born to a peasant family in Lhoka City. After graduating from middle school, she became attached to thangka because she liked to draw. Her family sent her to a training institution in the suburbs of Lhasa to study thangka specially, and later she became a pupil of the great thangka master Tenpa Rabten.

It takes at least seven years to learn the fundamentals of thangka painting. This year marks exactly 10 years since Champa Yangjen starting studying thangka. In 2018, her painting Padmasambhava was chosen for the Selections of 4th China International Thangka Art Festival.

Champa Yangjen said: "I was very happy when I earned this achievement. There are very few women painters like me who persevere, and I am very grateful to my family and friends for their support and encouragement."

She also said that thangka painting has made her, a village girl, feel her place in society, and being financially independent has made her even more confident.

Another female painter like Champa Yangjen is Wang Tianwen, who lives in Lhasa. However, the difference between the two is the Wang is from the inland area of China, and she works in the business side of thangka. In 2011, she came to Lhasa by herself and began studying thangka painting with her Tibetan teacher Kedrol Gyatso.

She told the reporter: "After studying for two or three years, many of my friends asked me for advice on thangka. Since then, I slowly started acting as a broker between Tibetan thangka painters and collectors of inland areas of China."

Wang Tianwen studied Chinese painting and oil painting from an early age, and she has a particularly good feel for color. She finds a point of resonance between her own thangka style and the collector's approval by adhering to the basis of measurements for Buddha statue sculpting, adjusting the proportions of mixing mineral pigments, and adjusting elements of the painting.

Today, Wang Tianwen has created a professional thangka team. Like most outstanding thangka practitioners in Tibet, Wang Tianwen has earned a place in the thangka market, and she has also founded the Tibet Mantang Art Museum.

In future, she hopes that she will not only become a disseminator of thangka culture but also remain devoted to the spread of Tibetan and even Himalayan culture.