Yab Yum

May 13
Jul 10, 2021

With its complex system of tantric deities, art from the Himalayas has been intriguing and confusing the outside world for centuries. The representation of yab-yum, which translates as ‘father-mother’ in the Tibetan language, is common in Tibetan Buddhist iconography. It is associated with Anuttarayoga Tantra and depicted as a female seated on the lap of a male in an embrace. The feminine form represents wisdom (prajna), whilst the masculine form symbolises compassion and skilful means (upaya-kaushalya).

Yab Yum at Rossi & Rossi presents a range of fine classical sculptures and paintings from Tibet, Nepal, India and Mongolia that offer a closer look at this particular representation of divinity. A selection of contemporary works by artists from the Tibetan diaspora whose individual expression either resonates or reflects the dynamics and influence of tantric traditions is also on view.

Amongst the classical highlights is an intricate fourteenth-century Hevajra mandala from Tibet. In the centre of the painting, the multi-faced, multi-limbed Hevajra stands in an embrace with his consort, Nairatma; the latter holds a curved knife and skull cup. Crushed underneath them are the four Maras, or obstacles to enlightenment. A lotus containing a circles of goddess figures signifies the centre of the celestial palace where the deities reside. This ethereal abode is composed of four doorways, each decorated with an elaborate lintel; arches frame these elements and surround the Dharma wheel, which is flanked by reclining deer.

Also of note is an eleventh-century sculpture of Chakrasamvara, who became one of the most popular deities in Tantric Buddhism practised in the Himalayas beginning in the eleventh century. This elaborate sculpture from West Tibet or India depicts Chakrasamvara embracing his consort, Vajravarahi, in yab-yum. Chakrasamvara stands in the dynamic posture of alidhasana on the crushed figures of the Hindu deities Kalaratri and Bhairava, symbolising the defeat of the enemies of the Buddhist doctrine. His twelve arms clutch various ritual implements whilst Vajravarahi stands with her right leg wrapped around Chakrasamvara’s waist. A simple aureole in the shape of a flame surrounds the two figures.

Artists Nortse (b. 1963), Gade (b. 1971), Kesang Lamdark (b. 1963), Tenzing Rigdol (b. 1982) and Tsherin Sherpa (b. 1968) all come from Tibetan traditions, but are crafting an artistic language of their own. These powerful works provide a fresh reinterpretation of the vivaciousness of ancient symbols, figures and iconography, and how they interact with today’s pop culture and consumerist society.

Kesang Lamdark’s Dorge Drakkten (2014), for instance, illustrates how differently people around the world interpret gestures, words and images. The work juxtaposes the Tibetan Nechung Oracle with Dorje Drakden and Gene Simmons, all of whom make the same gesture: sticking out their tongues. In the West, this is seen as a sign of rebellion, whilst in Tibet, the gesture is used to greet people and is regarded as a sign of respect.

In Mandala – The State of Imbalance (2008), Nortse paints himself blindfolded with gauze bandages. A faded mandala signifying a state of cosmic order contrasts with the haphazardly dressed artist. Nortse’s obscured facial features highlight the separation between the self and reality, as the confusion of living through rapid modernisation is reflected in the multiple ties around his neck over a traditional Tibetan shirt.

These works of our contemporaneous times together with objects of antiquity constitute a narrative that maps the lineage of yab yum’s representation in the commentary on religious, social and cultural shifts in the Himalayas.