One of the walls in Tomoyo Ihaya’s studio is like a shrine to a martyred nation. Pinned there are two of this acclaimed artist’s hand-drawn maps of Tibet, pierced with burn holes and appearing to rain blood, tears, and toxic waste into the void of global indifference. Mounted around them are Ihaya’s simple yet powerful depictions of candlelight processions, three-stranded rivers, blue lotuses, white yaks, green trees—and portraits of Tibetan Buddhists who have self-immolated in protest of Chinese occupation of their land and repression of their culture. A white Tibetan offering scarf, or khata, is draped in the middle of these images, and a small arrangement of flowers and pine branches stands in front of them.
In her modest live-work space on Alexander Street, Ihaya talks to the Straight about her forthcoming exhibition, Blue Lotus. It will include a mixed-media installation, photographs, and a dozen individual drawings, most of them completed in Dharamsala, the northern Indian city that is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. This work mourns, honours, and bears witness to those who have sacrificed themselves by fire in Chinese-occupied Tibet. “They offer their lives to send a message, to their own people and others,” Ihaya says about her subjects. A practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, with many friends in the Tibetan community in India, she alludes to the last testaments of the self-immolators. “So often, they say in their wills, ‘I offer my body to be a lamp for peace.’ A young boy said, ‘I torch myself to become a light for my country.’ ”
Ihaya grew up in Japan, majored in German literature at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, and then moved to Canada to pursue fine-art studies, ultimately completing an MFA in printmaking at the University of Alberta. She has won numerous awards and grants, and has travelled extensively, through artist residencies in Mexico, Thailand, India, and the United States.
Despite coming of age in a country whose customs and mores are shaped by Buddhism, Ihaya didn’t know much about its beliefs until she took a university seminar in eastern philosophy in Tokyo. And she didn’t develop a deep, personal interest in its teachings until the late 1990s, after settling in Vancouver. Friends took her to hear “a very young Dharma teacher”, a westerner who introduced her to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and meditation techniques—in English.
“I started hearing this fascinating wording, like ‘the transient nature of things’,” she says. “What made the difference to me was that it wasn’t about dogma.…It was a very real system to examine how we live and why we are here.”
Since 2005, when she first travelled to India with her meditation group, she has returned to that country 13 times. Initially, she was drawn to Ladakh, a remote and sparsely populated region in the north of India. Known as Little Tibet because of its ethnic, cultural, and religious ties to that place, it made an immediate and profound claim on Ihaya.
“I had no culture shock there,” she says. “Instead, I felt very nostalgic about it—the people and the landscape.” Beyond Ladakh, she established friendships in the exiled Tibetan communities in Delhi and Dharamsala, and began raising money for them through a craft-based project she called Himalaya Sky.
There have been more than 110 self-immolations since the Chinese government’s crackdown on Tibetan protests after the 2008 Olympics. However, it was not until 15 months ago, when Ihaya had taken up an artist’s residency in Puri, an Indian city on the Bay of Bengal, that she was suddenly and grievously compelled to make drawings about the individuals who had set themselves on fire. “I was in a cybercafé, checking the news, and saw that a woman had died. I don’t know why, but when I read it alone, so far from the Tibetan community, I had to draw her,” Ihaya recounts. “I felt so much pain and there was nobody to share it with. So I went back to my room, and I saw this vision of a red and white figure.” She drew her vision, very quickly and spontaneously. The red signified flames, Ihaya explains, and the white, her desire to bestow peaceful cooling and purification on the deceased person.
Since then, Ihaya has spent two extended periods in Dharamsala, making more than 70 drawings in direct response to reports of new self-immolations, researching the lives of the dead, and taking part in community vigils. Her art, which uses recurring symbols of healing, renewal, and peaceful reawakening, alludes not only to those who have sacrificed themselves, but also to the children or parents they have left behind. “It’s my peaceful protest,” she says. “I want the world to know what is happening.”