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Lama Tashi Norbu

Introducing the artist fusing tradition and modernity in Tibetan art, culture and religion
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Tashi Norbu

This article first appeared in our World Environment Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 05 June 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Main image: OMMMbassador Lama Tashi Norbu

Lama Tashi Norbu, a visual artist and OMMMbassador, is the president and founder of the Museum of Contemporary Tibetan Art.

Born into the rich tradition of Tibetan thangka painting, Tashi Norbu received his education and training at the court of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His journey from a traditional Tibetan thangka painter to a contemporary artist is testament to his ability to blend ancient wisdom with modern artistic expression.

The thangka tradition

Tibetan thangka paintings, which emerged in the 11th century, aren’t just work of art; they are tools for meditation and vehicles for teaching Buddhist philosophy.

These intricate paintings depict the life and enlightenment of Buddha, and served as visual aids for travelling lamas who used them to communicate their teachings in villages.

Thangkas were traditionally created anonymously and according to strict rules, ensuring the narrative – rather than the artist’s personal expression – remained the focal point.

The paintings, which often required months or even years to complete, were crafted with the intention of guiding the viewer’s meditation and spiritual journey, so the integrity of the representation was paramount.

A modern thangka painter

Tashi Norbu’s journey as an artist began within this traditional framework, but his path took a turn when he was sent to the West to study contemporary art.

This experience allowed him to blend traditional Tibetan iconography with modern elements, creating a unique style that is both reflective of his heritage and relevant to contemporary audiences.

While working under His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it became clear just how talented Tashi Norbu was. His studies were sponsored in the West and Tashi Norbu went on to obtain a degree in Contemporary Art in Belgium, which gave him the understanding required to innovate within his cultural heritage.

Tashi Norbu’s contemporary paintings and collages retain the essence of thangka art, telling stories of Buddha and Buddhist philosophy while incorporating symbols of modern life.

His works often feature traditional Buddhist icons alongside contemporary objects such as mobile phones, laptops and aeroplanes. These elements, combined with images from his adopted home in the Netherlands, create a playful and dynamic visual narrative.

Tradition and modernity

In 2014, Tashi Norbu’s art began integrating Western science with traditional Buddhist beliefs. The goal was to visually demonstrate that there is no fundamental difference between various beliefs or thoughts, and encourage a dialogue where everyone can learn from each other, fostering a collective growth in knowledge and humanity.

This innovative approach is evident in Tashi Norbu’s live painting performances, where he combines traditional techniques with modern artistic practices.

Audiences worldwide have been captivated by his ability to provide a new lens through which to view both Buddhist philosophy and contemporary issues.

A monk and an artist

Tashi Norbu’s life as a Tibetan Buddhist monk deeply influences his art. Ordained by Namkhai Nyingpo Rinpoche, who is considered part of the legendary Sky Dancers of Tibet, Tashi Norbu embodies a spiritual depth that permeates his work.

Beyond his paintings, Tashi Norbu engages in various forms of artistic expression, including meditation, sand mandala creations and even tattooing sacred Tibetan art based on individuals’ astrological charts.

His commitment to alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings is evident in his advocacy for the preservation of Tibetan art and culture.

Through his multi-faceted approach, Tashi Norbu demonstrates that art is not just a visual experience but a holistic one that engages the mind, body and spirit.

The sacred art of tattoos

Among his many unique talents, Tashi Norbu is also the only Tibetan Lama who creates sacred tattoos based on an individual’s personal astrology and mantra.

This practice is a profound extension of his artistic and spiritual work, merging traditional Tibetan astrology with the contemporary art of tattooing.

Each tattoo is a personalised spiritual tool designed to align with the individual’s astrological chart and mantras, which are believed to carry specific energies and blessings.

These sacred tattoos are more than just body art; they are spiritual symbols meant to protect, empower and guide the wearer.

Tashi Norbu carefully designs each tattoo to reflect the unique spiritual journey of the individual, combining ancient wisdom with a deeply personal touch.

This practice underscores his belief in the interconnectedness of all life and the importance of individual spiritual paths.

The Museum of Contemporary Tibetan Art

As the founder and creative director of the Museum of Contemporary Tibetan Art in the Netherlands, Lama Tashi Norbu has created a unique space dedicated to Tibetan art.

This museum, the only registered Tibetan museum in the world, serves as a cultural hub where traditional and contemporary Tibetan art coexist.

Tashi’s vision extends beyond this museum; he aims to establish a similar institution in the United States, furthering his mission to preserve and promote Tibetan culture.

The museum not only houses a vast collection of Tibetan art but also serves as an educational centre.

It offers workshops, lectures and cultural events that aim to engage the public in the rich traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and art.

Through these initiatives, Tashi Norbu hopes to inspire a new generation of artists and scholars to appreciate and continue the legacy of Tibetan art.

Global influence and advocacy

Tashi Norbu’s dedication to sustainability is reflected in his art and activism. His large Buddha sculptures, created from recycled materials such as scrap wood, metal and plastic, address pressing environmental issues.

These sculptures symbolise the interconnectedness of all life and the impact of human actions on the planet.

Tashi Norbu places these artworks in public spaces around the world to draw attention to critical issues like deforestation and ocean pollution.

Tashi Norbu is collaborating with Indigenous elders in Ecuador to build a 20-foot Buddha in the Amazon. The aim is to highlight ongoing deforestation and to promote sustainable practices to protect this vital ecosystem.

The storytellers in art

Tashi Norbu is one of the few remaining Lama Manis, or storytellers in art. Lama Manis travel to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophies and preserve Tibetan culture through their storytelling and artistic expressions.

This role further emphasises Tashi Norbu’s commitment to his heritage and his mission to share it with the world.

As a Lama Mani, Tashi Norbu embodies the ancient tradition of oral storytelling, using his art to convey complex philosophical ideas and cultural narratives in a way that is accessible and engaging.

His ability to connect with audiences on a personal level through his stories and art makes him a powerful advocate for Tibetan culture and Buddhism.

Studying Western culture

Tashi Norbu has taken the time to study English and immerse himself in Western culture. This allows him to bridge the gap between East and West, making his teachings and art more accessible to a broader audience.

His fluency in English and understanding of Western cultural nuances enable him to engage deeply with diverse communities, fostering a greater appreciation of Tibetan art and philosophy.

In a world where rapid change often leads to a disconnection from our roots, Tashi Norbu stands as a beacon of hope, reminding us of the enduring value of tradition while embracing the possibilities of the future. His work is a celebration of the rich tapestry of human experience, woven together by the threads of art, spirituality and compassion.

Through his tireless efforts, Tashi Norbu continues to inspire and transform – one painting, one performance and one tattoo at a time.

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