Gonkar Gyatso (b. 1961)

Gonkar Gyatso is a Tibetan-born British artist. Born in 1961 in Lhasa, Gyatso moved to London in the late 90s on a scholarship to study at the Chelsea School of Art and Design, where he attained his MA in Fine Art. Gyatso studied Chinese Brush Painting in Beijing, attaining a BFA. He also studied Thangka painting (traditional Tibetan scroll painting) in Dharamsala. Gyatso is the founder of the Sweet Tea House, a contemporary art gallery dedicated to showing Tibetan work, based in London, which he ran from 2003–10. The artist was the recipient of a Leverhulme Fellowship in 2003 and was an artist in residence at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Gonkar Gyatso’s work comes out of a fascination with material and pop culture along with a desire to bring equal attention to the mundane as well as the extraordinary, the imminent, and the superfluous. These contradictions are often found in the same piece. His work can be very silly, uncanny, and even ironic and at the same time comes out of concerns that are shaping our times. As his own experience has been one that reflects a kind of hybridity and transformation, his work also holds this quality.

We are all repositories of our time and place; the work cannot help but reveal the politics and cultures that have shaped him. Gyatso collects materials from around the world to construct his images. Each work contains a kind of geographic specificity, relating to the time and place he is making the work, where he has been, and the things that have touched him.

Gyatso’s interest in signage and iconography have led him to design his own stickers and signs that he incorporates into his work; sometimes they are collaged in and at others they stand on their own, each representing a social or political trend that he would like to bring to attention. The artist’s repeated use of the Buddha and appropriation of our media-saturated environments illustrate his interest in ubiquity and accessibility, often appropriating and even re-appropriating his own work. What once was “white noise” becomes a cacophony of carefully composed images, beautifully constructed into an iconographic form or word.

While graffiti is now considered its own art form, Gyatso is also interested in pushing the boundaries between, what some might say, is high and low art and certainly takes a lot of his inspiration from the street.

Gyatso is deeply moved by the need to preserve and celebrate his own culture and just as artists like Judy Chicago seek to make the vernacular of womanhood part of our discourse or Glenn Ligon works to talk about black identity in America or Yinka Shonibare uses the textiles of his heritage to address issues of colonialism, Gyatso inserts Buddhist and Tibetan iconography into our daily lives. They all ask, where is our place? What is our role? And, where are we going from here? Just as the identity of Gyatso’s homeland, Tibet, cannot be separated from religion and politics, the undeniable bond between the two has shaped his own sensibility as well.

Gyatso’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA), the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, USA), Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Israel), The City Gallery (Wellington, New Zealand), The Institute of Modern Art (Brisbane, Australia), the Rubin Museum of Art (New York, USA), the National Art Museum of China (Beijing, China), the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (Scotland), the Courtauld Institute of Art (London, UK), the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam (the Netherlands), and the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane, Australia). Additionally he has participated in the 53rd Venice Biennial (Italy), the 6th Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane (Australia), and the 17th Sydney Biennale (Australia). His work is held internationally in public and private collections.