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Tibetan art on display at Chinese House

Tibetan art on display at Chinese House


Stemming back to seventh-century Tibet, traditional thangkas combine Buddhist spirituality with a unique technique for creating art

Photo by:

Sovann Philong

Tibetan thangkas at Chinese House.

While China and Tibet's political relationship is far from harmonious, Phnom Penh's Chinese House sees the two current rivals unite to display an array of 20th-century Tibetan artwork.

Hanging under the glow of Chinese lanterns, a collection of scroll paintings called thangkas - a traditional religious artform that typically displays the Buddha, bodhisattvas, teachers and mandalas - line the walls.

The exhibition's curator, Francois Alberola, a Royal University of Phnom Penh professor, said that while the pieces are relatively new, the artform is ancient, and the Chinese House was the perfect place to display the collection.

"The Chinese House has wonderful architecture, and this collection and the venue complement each other perfectly," he said.

Thangkas date back to the seventh century, after the Tibetan king patronised the art form and adopted Buddhism following his marriages to a Nepalese and a Chinese princess, who both brought thangkas with them in their belongings.

With silk as the canvas, the art is prepared with either a water-based colloid chalk or animal glue, and polished with a shell when dry until the surface is smooth and the desired sheen has been achieved.

Rich tradition

Rather than using ordinary paint, a combination of lime and glue is created and, to achieve colour, naturally occurring plants and minerals are crushed and added.

Encased by a large silk border, each painting has a thin coloured veil that is used to cover the front surface.

Being a sacred item, the veil historically is rolled up and the thangka is used as a visual aid for meditation and concentration.

Having collected the pieces over a prolonged period of time, Francois Alberola said this style of art combines two of his greatest interests.

"I have had an interest in spirituality and Southeast Asian art for a long time now," he said.

Alberola hopes the collection will allow this ancient art form to receive publicity.

Publicising Tibetan art

"Hopefully, this exhibition will promote Tibetan art, especially in this region of the world," he said.

While some of the oldest thangkas still in existence are thought to have been created in the 10th century, contemporary artists dominate the collection with the oldest piece on display being about 50 years old.

"I am always looking for new talent, and one of the most important aspects of the exhibition is to promote young artists," Alberola said.

All items in the collection are for sale, with prices ranging from just over US$300 through to $1,200.

The exhibition will run until February 14 at the Chinese House, 45 Sisowath Quay.


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