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Becoming an Accomplished Tibetan Artist: Pasang Tells his Story

We are thrilled to feature an interview with one of our favourite artists in Nepal – meet Pasang. He is originally from Tibet, but fled with his grandfather as a 7-year-old when the country was taken over by the Chinese. Here is his story, his inspirations and passions and how he expresses this in his Tibetan and Himalayan textile patchwork art, using 50-200 year-old woollen aprons, also known as pangdens, worn by Tibetan women after they marry.

Pasang in his studio in Kathmandu

Q: How was it growing up in Tibet and were you always interested in art?

A: 

Well, thank you for your question and it is a very good question that is easy for me to answer because, well, this is me. Growing up in Tibet, in a sense I was raised in a family who was very famous for dying textiles of the Potala and dying the textiles of monks robes, and Chubas of laymen, laywomen, and officials. These were long panels that were woven on a hand-loom. These pieces were brought all white and so we then dyed them in Indigo and some in Maroon. They came in rows that were 1 foot in width and 5 meters in length.

I was raised up in a house that was a factory/workshop in the center of Lhasa. I was born here, very close to a temple and Newari site.

During the time of my childhood there was no phone and little electricity. I remember the ‘radio-flips’ that had little knobs you had to turn around to get in tune – I used to listen to music and look at the textiles. Our culture involved a lot of things that identified different backgrounds of people with their ornaments, patterns, etc. I learned to respect everything at this early age.

The first thing that was taught to us by our parents is to respect everything that we see, to value it and respect it, because it will have a relationship with us and it is within the 5 elements. Body, mind, soul, everything is within these 5 elements. So if we see something that is torn or broken, you don’t just throw it and you try to make right use of it. So this is what I did with Tibetan textiles. All Tibetan Art is also Buddhist Art, and this is how I made use and honoured old broken textiles. All of this art has different combinations and balance.

Of course Tibet was so beautiful. There is 8 lucky mountains behind Lhasa. There is the huge magnificent Potala, and we had the Jorkhang. I remember I had to catch the finger of my grandmother and she would take me to all of the monasteries to go pay respects, light butter lamps, and like that. I really used to love admiring everyone’s costumes and seeing their different beautiful colours. These beautiful colours gave me some kind of interest inside me and remained in my heart for a very long time. I didn’t have much to play with because Tibet was going through a cultural revolution at that time, so this was a very difficult time for Tibet and a very different time for a child to be growing up in Tibet. I remember smoke, fire, gunshots, and sounds that you couldn’t even imagine hearing. It was like this up until I was around 7 years old.

At the age of 7 I was sent to Nepal. I was very small and I was sent without a passport. My grandfather had a letter with permission to go across from Lhasa to Nepal. I didn’t have anything and so they hid me inside of a gown – we were in a really big truck. I remember they had to hide me sometimes.

I arrived in Kathmandu and remember it being so beautiful. I was surprised to see it having lights on and people walking around at night, it was like heaven! (laughs)

I spent a lot of time without my parents. 

After a couple of years Tibet was re-opened, and so people could come and go from Nepal. My grandfather is Newari so I had permission to go and visit my relatives. I went a few times, I visited Mount Khailash. When I see the mountains, when I see the art, it is very much Buddhist and has so much sentimental value. Art is something that is something that can just express yourself and you don’t have to explain. You can just watch, see, beautiful, and then you go back and think about it and then it is beautifully created for a certain purpose.

I hope I am not getting carried away, so I am going to stop here. Sometimes I get carried away! (laughs)

Close up of the ‘Universal Mandala’, available for purchase here

Q: You are collecting old and damaged aprons from across the Himalayas and making it into beautiful art. What is the process like, and what inspired you to do this in the first place?

A:

This is a very good question. The inspiration is as I said before: I saw all these beautiful people with their different costumes, dress, from different backgrounds, what my grandmother used to wear, and all of these things everyone used to wear came from different traditions. They all wove it themselves in their courtyard. So everyone had their own textiles, different colour combinations, beautiful. Once when I went to Tibet and was coming back from Mount Kailash, I was coming back by road, and up in the altitude, on a sort of summit, it was full of snow, and in the snow I saw beautiful colours, like flowers, and then I went to see and it was all textiles that people have thrown here and there and everywhere. I took one or two pieces from there and I thought I should make something beautiful that would remain on the walls in this 21st century and people will remember the land-of-snow, Tibet, and the Himalayas from these textiles. This inspired me to make wall-hanging tapestries, so that people will remember the Himalayan people, Tibet, their handicraft, culture, and tradition. 

Q: Is there certain message you are trying to give with your art?

A:

Yes of course, very important. This is very important. The message is that what we have with us, and if we can utilize it for a bigger meaning, by recycling it or by using it again, it saves energy, it saves lives, it saves so many things. So, I think this is the biggest message to the 21st century and the legacy is always there and can be remembered on the wall. And to also remember Tibet on the wall. Thank you.

Q: How much planning do you do before you jump into creating an artwork? If you do, what are you trying to solve at each stage of it?

A:

The thing is that I have designs in my mind, and the colour combination is always there within these textiles – some kind of warm colour and some kind of touch and feeling. It is all there. It is not like other kinds of textiles. So with these textiles, when I touch them and feel them, and put them together, then I make the colour combination according to what is there. 

There is no such thing as time consumption or something like that, because plan and design is in my mind, I just look at the pieces, see what I can do with them, and then set them up into a design. It’s like this. There is not much planning. We don’t plan things. I see the textiles, and according to that, then I go and make it into a design. It’s like that.

Art needs to come from the mind and the atmosphere must be there in order to create that. So I stay in a very good atmosphere and I create art. 

When I think about artwork, I don’t think about cost, money, evaluation of expenses and things like that. I just go on and flow like a river when I do my artwork. It’s like a flowing river really, that goes to the ocean, and then comes back as a cloud, and again it rains and feeds everybody, and then it goes back again into the ocean. It’s like that.

So, everything is in my mind which is flowing in crystal clear water. If it is clear and flowing like water, then it evaporates faster, it goes up and forms clouds for the rain to come. If it is like dirty water, then it will stay underneath the ocean. So it is something like this. I need to be fresh in my mind, environment, everything. No disturbance of doing business, like ‘ohh I have to make a lot of money because tomorrow I need a car, a house, this and that, 5 or 6 wives, this and that…’ no, no, no, not like that. It’s art. My life is art. I live in art. I live in a proper way so that I can balance myself. Even the colour combinations, the textiles, everything is in balance. So I do balancing artwork, it is all about balance. 

When we talk about mentally, physically… ok so mental movement is like – let’s say you are blind or if you close your eyes and you don’t see anything, but then you have feeling, and this is more than imagination. This is some kind of art. So mentally, you need to have art inside your mind. You don’t just look at something, copy it or sketch it, it has to be in the mind. I have to perform what I have meditated inside my brain onto a tapestry design. Pshycially I am ok – I do exercise and keep myself fit. I am also Vegan. So all of this, it is very simple for me to live in a balanced way.

‘Lotus Frame, Phurba & Dorje’, available for purchase here

Q: Tell me more about rediscovering an ancient textile. What are some interesting stories about them?

A:

To rediscover, yes this is a very good questions. When we talk about ancient textiles, if we go back only 70 years from today, 2020, there were not any machines and everything was woven by hand. Every textile had its own identification: Country, State, and Village. So all the textiles have different colour combinations in regard to their own identification. So it is so much fun to go through the textiles. You can go through them and find some textiles that are more than 100 years old, 200 years old, and even 1000 years old you can find. Sometimes they are scattered in the Himalayas, in high altitude with thin air, and so sometimes they can survive for a very long time. It is very much an interest and it is so much fun to go through these textiles. You get to know yourself as well. We also have  different colour combinations within my generation of textiles, made at that time. When you talk about wool, Tibetans never go and shave the wool from animals, they only collect naturally from bushes and the ground. Whatever wool they get they make into textiles. The best and finest wool they can find they make into a beautiful textiles to be worn. When they find strong fibers like hair, they can make them into rope or tent, or salt bags, like that.

Textiles at that time were not made for fashion, but for necessity for your daily life basis. Although they were also made very beautiful, with eye catching colour combinations, they were mainly maid to be strong and to keep warm – so this is what it is. And when you come to know the textile, you will also come to know the place. Some textiles, when they are woven is such a way, you will come to know they are from the royal family, and this one is from a noble family, and this textile is from an official, and this one is from a layman, and this is a village textile. There is many many different textiles which speak to us saying ‘I am from there’. So it is also a language of textiles. It is a silent language where you have to meditate and know the colour combination, the weaving, the colours, and then the design just talks to you. 

Q: Has your style changed or evolved over the years?

A:

It is very difficult for me to change my style because I never change, I am the same guy. I’ve had the same style from childhood. I keep on doing something new every time, it’s like this. 

The tradition is always there. The Tibetan culture and Buddhist culture, I can’t change that. But there is different designs which can come up according to my tradition. The designs come from the time of the Bon religion in Tibet, was far back before Tibet was even Buddhist. These are specific and I am trying to revive and bring these back into the modern world. So I meditate on a lot of these Shamanic designs, and also from the ngakpa (householder yogis) and Tantric Buddhist designs. My style has always been to try to bring these designs into the 21 century and I wont change this style.

Sometimes I do create new designs, it comes up in my head, and I will create only one wall-hanging with it, not more than one, like that, one creation and that is it. 

I see a lot of things changing over the years around me, surrounding me everywhere. But changing the style, how could I change? I see style as something different from creation. Because creation comes from within yourself, and has the support of all our ancestors from generations. Back into the old days, going back thousands of years to all the great masters, Gesar of Ling, there are a lot of designs. From here we can get inspired and come to a conclusion of one design to then make a fusion of designs. Once I fused together Ganesha with a elephant trunk and a Yantra, eyes in the middle, and inside a Lotus Frame. I created this. And then I created a Swastika Mandala which is for now – to protect us from disease and many things (the Swastika is actually a Hindu symbol of peace – Hitler adopted it’s mirrored image). ‘Swast’ means ‘body’. This Mandala which I made, is a different creation from Swastika Mandala and it’s a beautiful Mandala and is surrounded by a Lotus Frame.

When you talk about style and design, I always look into the meaning of the design, this is very important.

Alex and Pasang in his studio in Kathmandu

Q: Who are a few artists or people that really inspire you right now? And why?

A: Oh this is a good question. Actually I respect all of the artists in the world. When it comes to inspiration, it comes not only artists, but from every background. For example, in Tibet, I got inspired from beautiful art that was done by the people in those days, the colour of the houses, the Potala, this is inspiration. Who ever dreamed up and made the Potala? Who had this mind? Padma position (lotus/crossed-legs meditation position), it looks like a monk sitting down and meditating in the middle of the city! This is so beautiful and the kind of inspiration that I take. This is came from the minds of not only one artist, but from many artists. The Potala came from many artists – it is incredible! A monk sitting in the middle of the city! I get inspired by these old traditions and also all the good things that were in the past and that I can bring it into the future. Inspiration is not only looking at somebody, but looking at the objects that we see, how to make them beautiful, our landscapes, how do we make them sustainable for lots of people? This is the artistic vision that comes in my mind combined with the textiles right now. There is also many things I can do without textiles. When I see a landscape, I imagine things there that are practical and that can benefit 6 billion beings. This is an art that is in me, not necessarily inspired by particular artists, but more so all of these objects together. There was so many people who built the Potala Palace, and it turned into such a beautiful building in the end. And then people started to add more on top – the golden chapel, lots of things. 

I get inspired by good things that I see. To do good things, to create good things. So that people get calm, and to start their life from zero. This kind of art is very important.

Q: What memorable responses have you had from your work?

A:

I had a lot of experiences in my art work. I am not doing so much business exactly. I survive on my art and I also pay all the fees for my 3 daughters.

I am an artist and not a businessman, and sometimes people try to bargain so hard. I have to see my space, how much is enough for me for 1 year to cross, and then the next year to cross. I usually go by gasping from year to year to cover everything, to sustain. 

The responses from people towards my art, my work, yes they like it very much. But my art takes so much time – I have to select the textiles, find the right colour combination, make the design, and I must know the motive behind the design. There is all these things and it is so difficult to explain to people all of these things. The person needs to be a very good listener.

In this kind of work, the most memorable was when I first started this art, and then after some time lots of people tried to copy me. This made me feel very happy because from nothing I made something and then others wanted to do the same. I also had competition and this made me so much better – I needed to be a step ahead every time. It was like a chasing game. People were copying me, so then I had to race ahead to make something better. This was memorable.

I also never check the background of people. We meet and people like my art and then I sell it. If someone buys my art and sells it for much more that is okay. This makes me happy and things will go on like this. I always remember that in my life I am the kitchen and I am the cook.

My most memorable moment ever was having someone from New York Times write an article about me. He came and took photos and interviewed me and I had a full page spread in New York Times. Thank you for these questions, they make me think back to give you an answer, and I had forgotten about this.

Q: What’s next for you?

A:

The next project is in my mind. I have to keep it for sometime and then use it later on. It will be for the Himalaya and the tradition of the Himalayan people. It will be for the environment, for the Himalaya, and for Tibet. This is my next project. It is a very short and sweet project. It is not yet done and I will be keeping it in my mind for some time. Thank you.

To learn more about Pasang, read his ‘Meet the Maker’ page here and see his Tibetan Wall-hanging Art Collection here.

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