A leading figure in contemporary Tibetan art, since the beginning of his career Gonkar Gyatso has attempted to unify divergent abstract and hyperrealist representational systems used as politicised tools to promote religious belief or totalitarian party lines. In the 1980s, Gyatso was one of a few artists to defy local artistic conventions to research a Tibetan modernist language/aesthetic whose subject matters and style rejected Chinese realism, combined abstract images with thangkas motifs, Buddhist paintings or embroideries which can be rolled up. After his education in Beijing, in the early ´80s he returned to Lhasa where he came into contact with the Dalai Lama’s speeches. These led him to question the truthfulness of the history he was taught as the son of governmental officers and, in this process, he became increasingly acquainted with Tibetan Buddhism. He later went on a self-imposed refugee in Dharamsala, the Indian city hosting the Tibetan government in exile, and finally emigrated to London.
The photographic series My Identity is emblematic of the artist´s major ideological shifts across national, political and stylistic borders that constitute “Tibet.” The central motif of the series is a re-enactment of a 1937 photo by C. Suydam Cutting, the first Westerner to enter the Tibetan capital, that portrays the Dalai Lama’s senior thangka painter at work. In each photo, Gyatso is seated before a canvas looking out at the viewer, but each time the context is radically different. The first image depicts Gyatso dressed in a traditional Tibetan robe drawing a devotional Buddha figure; in the second he is a Communist Chinese painter rendering an image of Mao Tse-Tung; in the third he is a contemporary refugee artist painting the Potala Palace, chief residence of the Dalai Lama before he fled to Dharamsala; the fourth shows the contemporary Gyatso sitting in a modern flat in the act of creating an abstract image. One can interpret these photographs as cosmetic transformations depicting his life in each of these locations; in reality they act as Barthesian “certificates of presence” that ask who, and what, has the power to control forms of iconization.