Artist shows real Tibet with traditional touches in modern design

By Shan Jie in Lhasa Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/11 18:13:41

Nyema Droma and her dog Paipai at home in Lhasa, Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. Photo: Li Hao/GT

By the age of 18, Nyema Droma had drawn attention, as well as controversy, with her photography showing local Tibetan people's modern lives.

In a set of photos exhibited in London, one photo shows a lama holding a Coca Cola bottle, while another shows two men drinking Budweiser beer.

"My classmates from Western countries asked me if the coke and beer were props for the shoot," Nyema said, "but it is what we have every day in Tibet!"

That was when Nyema realized many people who had never been to the Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region held stereotypical views of the high-plateau region, and decided to show people the real Tibet.

At 21, she set up the Hima Alaya Studio, working on photography and fashion design.

Now 25 years old, Nyema has just finished organizing a photography competition in Lhasa. 

The activity aims to discover the Tibetan aesthetics that surround local people in their daily lives.

A monk named Nyima Norpo won first prize. "My identity [as a Tibetan monk] has brought me better experience in colors," the winner said.

The exhibition of the competition entries will be held in Chengdu, capital city of Southwest China's Sichuan Province and New York from April to May.

"It will be my first time in the US. It's so exciting," Nyema said, as her 3-year-old Old English Sheepdog Paipai, who was named after cartoon figure Popeye the Sailor, followed her.

Neyma has even bigger dreams related to Tibet's unique cultural heritage, and even the region's fragile ecology.

Sitting in front of portraits of Tibetans in the exhibition, Nyema told the Global Times her story.

Breaking stereotypes

Nyema was born in 1994 in Lhasa to a well-off family. Her father was a climber in the Tibet mountaineering team and has scaled Mount Qomolangma several times.

At the age of 8, Nyema's family moved to Chengdu, where she went to a foreign language school. There, she spoke Putonghua with schoolmates and learned English.

At school, her artistic talent quickly showed. A report in the Tibet Daily said that hair bows that the 13-year-old Nyema designed and made by hand had become popular among schoolmates.

At 18, she went to London for her higher education and in 2015 received her BA degree in Fashion Photography and Styling at the London College of Fashion.

In the last few years, she has held three photography exhibitions in the UK and published photos showcasing Tibet to the world. Currently, her exhibition "Performing Tibetan Identities: Photographic Portraits by Nyema Droma" is being held at the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University.

While taking pictures, Nyema said that she found it hard at the beginning to find the right balance.

"I felt that it was hard for the younger Tibetan generation to maintain tradition, as we have been influenced by media and all kinds of information from modern society. So during the transition period, it was a confusing situation," Nyema said.

Nyema Droma and her dog Paipai at home in Lhasa, Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. Photo: Li Hao/GT

After graduation, Nyema went to Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture in Northwest China's Qinghai Province, teaching English in temples. There, she was exposed to some very traditional Tibetan culture that she had not seen before.

Afterwards, she took pictures of some young Tibetans, gaining an insight into life at two extremes. "Then I realized that now I could have both: the traditional side and the modern side. It is more important to work well with both parts," Nyema said.

Her models are all local people. One of them was her friend Gyaltsen, a barber and skater. In one of Nyema's photobooks, two of Gyaltsen's photos were combined, showing his two sides: one as a fashionable barber, the other in a splendid traditional Tibetan coat.

"But actually, I only wear Tibetan costumes in winter, because the sheep skin is warmer," Gyaltsen told the Global Times.

"When they Google 'Tibet,' they see a nomadic life, museum pictures from 100 years ago, or something to do with religion," Nyema said. "I want to break the stereotype of Tibet in the Western mind and tell them it has different kinds of people doing modern jobs."

Hima Alaya

After graduating in London, Nyema decided to come back to Tibet and start her business here because "only in Tibet could I achieve what I always wanted to do and live the life I desire."

She founded her art studio Hima Alaya soon after graduation.

Under her own brand, Nyema designs clothes and accessories, combining Tibetan cultural elements with the necessities of modern life.

At her studio in northern Lhasa, Nyema introduced her most popular creations to the Global Times reporter. They included a down vest embellished with Tibetan patterns, a T-shirt with a ghost head resembling Albert Einstein's famous "tongue out" photo, and a yeti mask.

Clues to Nyema's personality were also on display in the way her studio was decorated - a child-sized coat with Tibetan patterns was draped around a Darth Vader model, and an alien mask from Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! was used as a lamp cover.

Hima Alaya's retail outlet in central Lhasa is often full of customers who speak either Tibetan or Putonghua. A middle-aged mother and her 23-year-old daughter bought three items. They said the attractive designs of the merchandise regularly drew them to the shop.

Hima Alaya's retail outlet in central Lhasa Photo: Li Hao/GT

"We might be the first to have Tibetan costumes with modern designs," said Nyema.

They use waterproof and windproof materials in making Tibetan costumes and have made the style simpler to wear, so that the clothes can meet modern people's needs.

"Some people said the change would lead to tradition disappearing, but I don't think that's true. Only by fusing them with modern elements can traditional designs last," she said.

Recently, Nyema has also been involved in a project with art students in the Tibet University. They are collecting garbage from Mount Qomolangma and turning them into artworks, reawakening people's awareness of protecting the environment on this holy mountain.

She also wants to publish an encyclopedia on Tibetan traditional costumes, giving young Tibetans detailed instructions on how to wear the clothes properly.

Newspaper headline: In the picture

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