Between life and death: the paintings of Tomoyo Ihaya

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At a four-day gathering at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, called ‘Solidarity with Tibet’, in early February 2013, my friend the poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue introduced me to Tomoyo Ihaya, a Japanese artist visiting India from Vancouver, Canada, where she lives. About four to five thousand Tibetans, gathered from different parts of India, sat in orderly lines on the street, listening patiently to Indian and Tibetan politicians and public figures who came up on a stage one by one to speak about Tibet’s situation and the relationship between India and the Tibetan people. Many in the crowd wore maroon monkish habits, others carried the colourful Tibetan flag: red, blue, and yellow, with its white mountain, noonday sun, and a pair of snow-lions. The spectators sat in an incredibly peaceful and quiet way, with none of the noise or chaos of a public demonstration in evidence. Tomoyo and I stood in a corner and talked, and had a cup of sweet chai in the winter sunshine. Her hushed voice, graceful wiry frame, minimalist and austere Japanese aesthetic, and delicate mismatched earrings appealed to me immediately. We met again several times in the subsequent days before her departure for Canada via Japan.

Tomoyo, an artist, had been a frequent and enthusiastic traveller to India, visiting Delhi, Ladakh and Dharamshala, among other places, when on yet another trip in early 2012 she began to take note of the growing number of reports of self-immolation in the Tibetan community. Something about this way of dying upset her profoundly, and she decided that she had to bear witness, pay tribute to, and mourn the dead through her art. She came back to Dharamshala and stayed for several months, making a drawing each time she heard a new report of yet another act of self-immolation. She could not sleep until she had finished a work dedicated to each new victim.

She scoured the news media for information about the individuals who were burning themselves to death: she made a careful note of their age, gender, occupation, last words (if any), and whatever other details she could glean from news reports so as to get a strong sense of the individuality of each person who died in this manner. In some cases, photos or videos were circulated on the Internet. Howsoever painful to read, learn or watch, Tomoyo diligently documented the lives of the dead. She felt compelled to tell their stories as the stories of real human beings, with histories, homes, families, memories and dreams for a future. Only in this way could she convey the full tragedy of the lives cut short in the fire, and also calm herself down sufficiently so as to be able to continue her everyday life and her work as an artist.

In her own words, taken from her blog

‘Towards the last two months of my last visit to India in the spring of 2012, I encountered the Tibetan community in exile in India experiencing painful news of their people self-immolating in the fire one after another in China-occupied Tibet. My experiences in past visits to India (drawing a cremation site in Varanasi, documenting fire pits and cremation altars, and contemplating life and death around fire) synchronized with this particular movement, an extreme way of "offering" their bodies to "fire", asking for freedom and peace. I could not help drawing large and small drawings as an emotional response and with a sense of mourning. After coming back to Vancouver, the self-immolation kept happening and I felt that my personal and professional task was not finished. I have come back to India to continue to document and draw under the same theme.’

Tomoyo works on handmade Japanese paper, which varies in texture and translucency. She uses collage techniques, sometimes drawing directly on the paper with water-colours, otherwise using needle and thread, scissor and glue, and candles and incense sticks to burn and singe the surface and edges of the paper, so that material and subject come together in a powerful way. Each of her little canvases tells a story, with the self-immolating individual as the protagonist of that story. Certain symbols and metaphors recur in all her works, including a white tent on a mountain, green saplings, blue lotuses, red flower petals or drops of blood, water bodies of all kinds, principally lakes and rivers, clouds, candles, trees, animals, birds and of course human figures, mostly in white. Many Tibetans who self-immolate lie down and try to remain lying down with their hands folded even as their bodies are consumed by the flames – an incredibly difficult thing to do, given the prolonged and painful nature of this type of death. Thus many of Tomoyo’s figures too, lie down, and fold their hands together in a gesture of prayer. An ineffable sadness pervades her paintings, whose miniature-like fineness and intricacy give them the air of fairy-tales, although terribly twisted ones because of the gruesomeness of what they depict or refer to. She shows fire and ashes, but very rarely, considering that this entire oeuvre is about self-immolation.

Her work, in keeping with its subject, has none of the vibrant colors, voluptuous lines, busy canvases or satiny fabrics of the traditional Tibetan thangka painting. That world, saturated with colour, populated by deities who have many extraordinary, indeed supernatural powers, and replete with religious symbolism, is the opposite of the bare and stark scenes she invokes, where meaning vanishes in the face of annihilation. Her dying bodies linger for an instant, painfully, at the limn between this world and the next. Those whom we see, living or dying, are in the process of taking their leave, parting never to meet again. Gentle rainfall, cottony clouds, cooling waters, flocks of doves, and carpets of flower-petals, sometimes other-worldly blue lotuses, provide a small measure of comfort to soften the unbearable agony of those who are on the verge of departing this life forever. Although Tomoyo herself is a practising Buddhist, her aesthetic remains distinctly Japanese and never really assumes the palette or the lines of a more South Asian or Himalayan art.

Tomoyo is also making a series of portraits of the self-immolating individuals, based on photographs that appear sometimes in newspapers or on websites. She wants to have as many portraits as there are victims – to date, 111 (on 18/03/2013). But rather than have portraits that we may look at directly, she drops a thin veil of translucent paper over each one, on which the face of the person is delicately drawn in outline. The idea here is to preserve the interiority, the privacy, and ultimately the inscrutability of the individual consciousness that embraces death in this particular fashion. We might know such a person but cannot really know what motivates him or her to self-immolate. Memory pulls a curtain down over the suffering that consumes these living beings. In the end Tomoyo will have a wall of portraits – she hopes a wall whose numbers stop growing, a wall with a limited number of portraits – somewhat like a wall of photographs of the disappeared, Los Desaparecidos, in Latin America that one might see in an exhibition of contemporary South American art. The uniqueness, and the finitude, of each human life is sought to be captured through the photographic or painted (or hybrid) portrait, even as the artist pays tribute to the dead.

So far, the highest number of paintings that Tomoyo has had to make were in October, November and December 2012. Here is an artist who pours her own tears into her work; who stays up nights, paints, prays, grieves and burns candles every time a Tibetan self-immolates. She is learning both Tibetan and Hindi, to be able to be in India among Tibetans more and more. Coming from Japan, living in Canada, this amazing woman has made Dharamshala her home for no reason other than sheer human solidarity in the face of political injustice and personal pain. The acute and sincere grief in her work, the capacity to feel and convey the suffering of others, cannot leave any viewer unmoved.

Ananya Vajpeyi

Burning Butter Lamps

mixed media, 21 x 24 cm



For Tamding Thar and Rikyo

For Tamding Thar, who died on 15 June 2012 in Chentsa, Amdo, and for Rikyo, who died on 30 May 2012 in Zamthang, Kham. And for her three children who were left behind. ‘With the hope that peace prevails on earth,’ wrote Tamding.

‘May green leaves of Tara keep growing from theirs and many others’ tears, from those who have passed this life time for human dignity and from those who are left behind.’


For Lobsang Lozin and Pema Norbu

For Lobsang Lozin, who set himself on fire in Ngaba, Amdo, Tibet on 17 July 2012, and for Pema Norbu, whose life came to a violent end in Riwoshe, Kham on 16 July 2012.


For Sangay Dolma

25 November 2012.

For Sangay Dolma, 17 yr old nun from Dokarmo town of Tsekhog, Malho, Amdo.

She immolated herself in protest in front of the Chinese government office.

‘Look up, fellow Tibetans

Look at the blue twilight above,

Like a heavenly tent of white mountain

My Lama has returned.’

– First stanza from her poem left as her will