The Thangka paintings in Xigaze, Tibet autonomous region, are among the best-known, because of the region’s high artistic achievements. But the artists who create them don’t earn much, as the artform is still not well known outside the plateau region. Some Shanghai volunteers are looking to change that.
Thangka artist Norbu started studying the technique with a well-known Buddhist temple mural painter in Tibet more than 30 years ago. He says back then, very few people wanted to make a living by painting and selling Thangka, because artists were not the ones who set the value. Norbu, Thangka painter, said, "There was no fixed price for a piece of Thangka. If people like it, they can buy it at any price, for example, 100, 200 or 300. Nowadays, it’s different. The paintings are charged according to the materials we use. More golden pigments, more expensive."
Norbu says the situation has slowly changed over the years. As more and more people visit Tibet, the outside world is learning more about Thangka and showing a greater interest in it. More than 30 students are working as apprentices in Norbu’s studio. They earn 100 yuan for an eight-hour day, and some say they can make a living from their art.
"Very few people learned to paint Thangka in the past. But because many Chinese tourists and foreigners started to like it, it’s sold very well. That way, many people started to learn about Thangka." Said Thangka student Jamyang.
"I came here to paint Thangka after I graduated from middle school. One reason is that I like painting. But the most important one is that there are six children in my family, and I’m the youngest. They say now painting Thangka can earn money more easily." Said Thangka student Tsering Dholha.
These students may be among the first to understand that painting Thangka as a career has a promising future. Although a piece of Thangka can be priced at tens of thousands of yuan, it usually takes a novice at least five years of hard work to become proficient only in making the fabric, producing the pigments and sketching. It will take a lot more practice to become a true master who can produce money-making works.
Thangka Painter Phuntsok Trashi said, "The major problems of promoting the art of Thangka is that we have to recruit more students, but since we can’t earn that much with our current economic sources, we won’t recruit too many. So we hope the government can support us financially so that we can recruit more students."