New Spaces For Tibetan Art: A Conversation With Nyema Droma, Founder of Himaalaya Studio Lhasa
Nyema Droma is a Lhasa based photographer and recent graduate of the London College of Fashion, where she studied fashion styling and photography. Last summer I had the opportunity to attend her senior thesis show “The Sons of Himalaya” featuring portraits of Tibetans in Lhasa. The series showcased Tibetans wearing their own traditional clothing as well as borrowed costumes from the Tibetan Institute of the Arts, mixed with contemporary high fashion. Upon graduation Nyema returned to Lhasa where she opened her own studio for Tibetan artists called Himaalaya Studio. She has continued her portrait work, photographing and interviewing older Tibetans in their own traditional clothing and is currently teaching English in Yushu, where she does charity work. You can follow Nyema on tumblr and also check out her profile at National Geographic.
Shortly after her graduation show I had a chance to sit down with Nyema for an interview. We met up in a funky bar in Hackney and shared a few Red Stripes while I asked her about her work and impending return to Tibet. We talked about art, photography, music, things that all the young folks are on about in Tibet. At just 21, she is one of a new generation of Tibetans in Lhasa who are carving out new spaces for themselves. Since I was working on my own dissertation at the time, I was particularly interested in artistic production, and the physical and virtual spaces where Tibetan artists like Nyema share their work. We discussed the idea of home and place, as well as identity, and how the desire to express oneself often leads to the creation of new spaces. All the photos in this post are Nyema Droma’s. If you are interested in purchasing a print [the proceeds go to Nyema’s charity work in Yushu] drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
KK: How did you become interested in photography?
ND: Because I was interested in styling.
KK: Was your interest in fashion first?
ND: Not really, I didn’t really know what to do before I came here [to London], I just wanted to go to an art school and do some art but I never had any education about it.
KK: So then you just chose it when you started your course here?
ND: Yea, and the first year I was doing styling. The 2nd year I started my photography so it was last year when I started. I used to take a lot of pictures but not [with] professional cameras. And because I’ve always wanted to do a lot of stuff about traditional Tibetan things because now in Tibet, fashion sense is really bad… a lot of Chinese people come to Tibet to do photography but they always do landscapes and documentary portraits, which I don’t really like… they don’t really care about the outside [nature], they just care about the picture and there’s not a lot of content inside. I wanted to do something better than that and there’s not that many Tibetan photographers in Tibet, in Lhasa, because most of the students won’t be able to go abroad and for parents, they think that photography is not a good option to do in your future but I think now a lot of people are interested in photography, in art, in music in Tibet, like the younger people, the younger generation.
I did a documentary project in Tibet. For a month I basically went from Yushu to Chamdo, to Xining and Lhasa. A lot of places in one month. Yushu and the places outside of [the] Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] are actually more traditional. They speak more Tibetan and wear more Tibetan clothes. In Lhasa and Chamdo it’s completely [different], like they speak Chinese to each other. When I do interviews I think [that] everyone thinks the younger generation care more about the Tibetan situation than my Mum’s generation, [people from] the ’70s and ’80s. In the ’90s, [young people in Lhasa] heard a lot of things and they wanted to do something about it so they started to do a lot of artwork and music. And they were really smart too, they didn’t do it in an intensive way, they did it [in a way] that the Chinese government couldn’t really say anything about it. Whereas my Mum and my Dad, everything is about their job and they’re already satisfied with their lives…they won’t really think about anything like Free Tibet.
KK: Are the artists you know in Lhasa around your age? How do they show their work? Do you have galleries or artist collectives or anything like that for young people?
ND: No, we don’t have any galleries. We have galleries for really professional photographers, but in Tibet all the professional photographers are like 40-50 years old.
KK: How do young people share their work?
ND: On the internet. Weibo and WeChat. They’re mostly your age, a little bit older than me, [born in the ’90s or late ’80s].
KK: Do you think their work is to do with personal identity or to do with Tibet?
ND: I think it’s more about home… about identity for sure. Basically Tibetan music with any different ideas, like they have rock music, rap and a lot of other stuff, I think they are just trying. I think the content for themselves is not as important as, you know, Shapaley. They are really good at writing lyrics and stuff but I think for Tibetan rappers [in Tibet] what they do is just try to mix traditional music and modern music together. It’s about a lot of stuff, about friends, about love, about home, just anything.
There’s also another trend for musicians and artists in Tibet. Most of them, they are going to Beijing to make their future better because in Beijing there are more opportunities…internships and stuff. When you go to the city you get used to it and you start to speak their language and their culture and stuff. And also I basically came out of Tibet when I was 8 and stayed in Chengdu for 9 years and then I came here [to London]. So 9 years of my life was the main time of my childhood…a lot of my friends who stayed in Chengdu for more than 10 years…they just basically forgot about Tibet and they are all friends with Chinese and speak Chinese every day, they don’t speak English or Tibetan, so that’s a trend. This is what’s happening now in Lhasa.
KK: Your thesis work profiles models wearing traditional outfits with a few pieces of high fashion, a Prada shirt or something. Was it your intention to show how it can be complementary mixed together, or how it can be worn?
ND: The reason why I brought all the high fashion brands inside [Tibet] is because I wanted to submit to a magazine in China, but they didn’t accept it. But it’s also because my stylist flew from here [London] to Tibet so she brought everything to the photo shoot. I think what we did for the traditional clothes, mostly they [the models] are young Tibetans and they don’t really have many clothing, traditional clothing, so we went to the Tibetan Performing Arts Institute in Lhasa and I borrowed some accessories from the make-up artist because she’s my Mum’s friend. She’s the make-up artist and she’s in charge of all the accessories so I borrowed two boxes. I had 3 boxes of clothing and there’s one brand, it’s called Angel Chen, a very famous clothing designer who just graduated from Central St Martins. I used a lot of her stuff and high fashion pieces and traditional outfits. We went to a lot of different locations. We went on the mountain, then to my Dad’s museum and I did some on the street.
ND: I got a lot of ideas just from the people in Lhasa. I think that Lhasa is a really huge city that has contemporary fashion and contemporary technology and everything. And I think that everything is really mixed, like people they speak Tibetan, they speak Chinese, some of them even speak English. People are not as traditional as you might think. Like when you type on Google, when you search Tibetan, they’re all like very traditional faces and very traditional outfits. But what I’m trying to say here is just that they’re actually real, like the outfits they wear and the things they do are real, so this is kind of my idea. I always try to bring the things I’ve learned here in London back to Tibet. For example, the outfits for my project, they’re all wearing really good, high fashion brands. They [the models] don’t know much about it but they think it’s really cool to wear them.
KK: I think it’s interesting looking at representations of Tibet in fashion over the years. My family have a Tibetan store in New York, we’ve been there for 28 years. My father made Tibetan style fox fur hats with a brocade crown. In the late ’80s Calvin Klein used these hats and my grandmother’s handmade wool blanket in a double page spread for Vanity Fair. It was probably one of the first commercial fashion shoots that used traditional Tibetan clothing for an ad. Tibet gradually became more popular in fashion. More people were travelling to Tibet, Tibetans were opening up stores in the West and selling cultural items and clothing so it became popular. In New York there were always lots of designers looking for something exotic to accessorise their shoots.
ND: Most of the things you mention is in the West but in Tibet there’s no fashion at all. There are 2 Chinese photographers who started to do some photography about fashion in Tibet. They only used Chinese models, they never used any Tibetan models for a big photo shoot and basically in Tibet there aren’t many people, not many students that have seen a proper magazine with Tibetan faces or models inside…there’s not many magazines in Tibet and also a lot of websites are blocked, I think the only one I can think of is Vogue Korean they shot in Tibet last year, with a Korean model. I think now Tibetan elements are very in fashion but it’s really hard to shoot in Tibet because I think to have someone, to have a model’s trust is very hard for a foreign photographer. Because in Tibet it’s not very good to be photographed by someone you don’t really trust because you don’t know where the picture is going to be put…I think it’s still very traditional and I think that there is a difference between me and the other artist with the soil [Tenzing Rigdol]. He is trying to bring things from [inside] Tibet to outside of Tibet, but I’m trying to bring things from Western countries [inside], to bring them to Tibet and make more Tibetan people see it and for more Tibetan people to be interested in it.
KK: How often do people wear traditional style clothing?
ND: In general, it’s like us. I think it depends on the age group. After 55 years old [the average retirement age in Tibet], they start to wear traditional clothes because they don’t need to go to work anymore. Because you don’t really wear traditional clothes to work, people only wear it for traditional festivals and ceremonies and things like that, they don’t wear it daily, because they’re not very comfortable and they’re hard to wear. But it depends. I think that half of my models, because most of them are originally from the countryside of Tibet wear traditional clothes a lot more than modern clothes. But in Lhasa, traditional clothes are more expensive than normal clothes, unless you just get the cheapest one.
KK: Why do you think that is?
ND: Because the manufacturers, the factories, they’ve started to manufacture modern clothes, western clothes made in China and they import to Tibet.
KK: So the price is cheaper to just buy Western style clothes.
ND: Yea it’s a lot cheaper because if it’s traditional clothes they are hand made it and if it’s machine made it’s also made in Tibet because in China they can’t do it really good so they need to make it in Tibet and it’s a lot more expensive to do that. Because they won’t produce like a thousand or a million pieces so I think that’s the reason why.
KK: So then do you also have this concept of home and identity in your personal work?
ND: Being a Tibetan is very special so I think I want to use my work to show people my own identity and also my own culture and let more people know about Tibet because I can’t really do anything like you guys [on the outside], I can’t really say anything political but I think what I can do is show more people about Tibet and let them be interested in it and do their own research. All of my tutors never knew about Tibet before [me] and my classmates as well, but because my work is about Tibet people get to know about Tibet and about the political situation. My tutor even sent me Ngawang’s performance [Ngawang Lodup, a London based Tibetan singer] online and said, “He’s so cool you need to check it out!”
KK: What do you think the future of photography and art will be like in Tibet? Do you think it will ever reach a level where young people can organize their own exhibits. For example, is there a culture of visiting galleries?
ND: There isn’t a culture of people going to galleries in Tibet but there are some galleries and only people who are invited go there. People won’t buy tickets to get in. I think from now, art is not as important as here [in the West], [as it is] for Tibetan people in Lhasa. But I think photography is getting more popular and it’s either going to go one of two ways. One is that all the photography [will be] the same thing [without any content], like it’s already happening now a lot of people take pictures with just a model standing beside a building, a lot of Chinese models, Korean models come to Tibet, and do beauty shots [fashion shoots]. I think in these kinds of situations it’s hard for Tibetan people to get anything from it. If Tibetans are doing these things, then at least the magazines would sell in Tibet and the money would go back into Tibet and there could even be a free exhibition in Tibet but no-one has ever done this, maybe just one or two people.
It’s just really hard for artists to spend a lot of money for art in Tibet nowadays but I think people are trying and a lot of artists are trying to do some job that is not related to art just to earn money and to support their interests. That’s what Tibetan people do now. There is not a lot of Tibetan photography because a lot of people can’t really photograph what they want to photograph, and a lot of people don’t actually care any more. All the people I know on Facebook, everything is about Tibet and supporting Tibetan people. Everything is about Tibet but in Tibet it’s not the same.
If you look at social media, it’s just K-Pop, Chinese soap opera, stuff like that…it’s just not very traditional any more. That’s why I want to go to Yushu to learn, because I was educated in Chengdu. It’s not my fault [I don’t know] anything about it, it’s because I never heard about anything…I never even saw what the Dalai Lama looked like before I was 18. So a lot of people [like me] are innocent. It’s really different for people in exile.
I have some friends who are just 17, 16…they have bracelets about Tibet, they have T-shirts that say I Love Tibet but in Tibet no-one who is really going to wear those. In Lhasa, people speak Chinese to each other and I don’t know, a lot of people prefer, clothing wise and everything…I think they just prefer Chinese now, more than traditional [style]. But they still love Tibet, just [in] a different way I think. Because you are living outside of Tibet and you don’t know anything about…not you don’t know anything about…but you’ve never actually experienced life in Tibet, maybe you will actually like it, like my grandparents I think they really enjoy their lives in Tibet. So they don’t try to do anything like that, I think it’s very very different situation inside and outside. For the Tibetans outside, maybe in their minds, Tibetans are like something they can imagine but it’s actually not. You know the people from Amdo, Lhasa, Chamdo, in all those different areas they speak Chinese to each other, they don’t have a common language.
KK: So right now would you say now the exchange of individual expression and information is mostly happening on social media?
ND: Yea, in Weibo, you can see in Chinese there is a lot [of content] about Tibet.
KK: Do you think there will ever be a point where young people will be able to work together and share their work in a physical space or do you think it’s always going to be something that exists mainly online?
ND: I think, for my own studio that I’m going to build, it’s going to be a big open space, the first floor is a daylight studio and the ground floor is just an open space for everyone to come. It’s going to be an art space for Tibetans inside Tibet. It’s also going to be [connected] with the Yushu temple because most things I do is to support them. There will always be social media because the cost is much less, but if all goes well I think maybe my studio will be one of the spaces where Tibetans can share their work.