Sonam Dolma Brauen installing “My Father’s Death,” 2010, Oct. 26, 2023, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. (photo by Dana Anderson, Media Services)
Early in the morning of Oct. 26, 2023, a quiet memorial was taking shape at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Forty-nine precisely folded Tibetan Buddhist monks’ robes were laid on worktables in the gallery. The artist Sonam Dolma Brauen sat on her knees and gently placed each robe on the platform, slowly building up a square wall of cloth while leaving an empty well inside. Working with her husband of 50 years, Martin Brauen, she moved from table to floor, methodically circling the work, smoothing the worn cloth and carefully placing nine molded votive sculptures, called “tsa tsas,” into the center well. Sonam’s sculpture, “My Father’s Death,” is an object of commemoration. Building it is an act of love.
Sonam Dolma Brauen (b. 1953) is an artist known for exploring personal histories in her work. Born in Tibet, at age 6, Sonam and her family fled the Chinese occupation of their homeland for India. Her younger sister died in a refugee camp and Sonam and her mother lost her father, Tsering Dhondup, a few years later. The impoverished family was unable to pay to retrieve his body from the hospital where he died, so he did not receive a proper funeral. This tragic event weighed heavily on Sonam and her mother through the years.
Sonam married the Swiss anthropologist Martin Brauen in the early 1970s and she and her mother immigrated to Switzerland. Sonam studied Fine Art in Bern, Switzerland, and became known for her abstract paintings. From 2008 through 2012, Sonam and Martin lived in New York City, where Martin served as Chief Curator of the Rubin Museum of Art. While in New York, Sonam created sculptures and installations and began working on a long-held idea of a work in memory of her father, which became the sculpture “My Father’s Death” (2010.)
Sonam described the process of making “My Father’s Death” during a recent program at the Nelson-Atkins. Sonam said that she put out a call to Buddhist monks in Lhasa, Tibet, to donate used robes to create an artwork in honor of her father, who was, himself, a monk. Her Tibetan contacts told her that the monks were at first suspicious of her request. Sonam said that in Tibet, the concept of an artist is of someone who paints religious hanging scrolls, known as “thangkas.” Sonam said that there was no Tibetan word to describe the kind of artwork that she was proposing. So, instead, Sonam told the monks that she would use their donated robes to tell stories, in this case, her father’s story. That idea did make sense to them, and Sonam describes her surprise when she got a call from her neighborhood postmaster to come and pick up an enormous package from overseas. Sonam said that when she got the bundle of garments home and cut it open, she was overwhelmed, saying “it smelled like Tibet.”
The tsa tsas resting inside the robes also serve to memorialize Sonam’s father. Tibetans make tsa tsas as part of their funerary rituals, and often mix ashes of the deceased with clay into the forms, which are left on altars or in sacred sites. The nine plaster tsa tsas in Sonam’s sculpture are made from a tsa tsa mold from her family altar in Tibet — and it is one of the only objects that they were able to carry during their perilous escape to India. As part of the programs related to this exhibition, Sonam and Martin taught a studio tsa tsa-making workshop at the Nelson-Atkins. Participants had the opportunity to create tsa tsas to take home, or to leave them at the altar for the Dia de los Muertos festival at the museum. During this informative and emotional workshop, a number of participants brought mementos of loved ones who had passed on to put inside their tsa tsas.
Sonam and Martin gave the sculpture “My Father’s Death” to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 2020 in honor of former curator Leesa Fanning. This is its debut presentation at the museum. The exhibition “Sonam Dolma Brauen: My Father’s Death” also includes an 8-minute biographical film about Sonam created by her daughter, the filmmaker and author Yangzom Brauen. Historical Buddhist sculptures from Tibet and Nepal are also displayed, which highlight shared ritual practices between traditional cultural practices and Sonam’s contemporary sculpture. Outside the gallery, visitors are encouraged to respond to the question “How do you honor someone’s memory?” and share their responses in a station surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags.
“Sonam Dolma Brauen: My Father’s Death” is on view through Nov. 11, 2024, in Gallery 203, in the Asian galleries of the Nelson-Atkins. The exhibition is free. For more information, see: nelson-atkins.org/exhibitions/sonam-dolma-brauen-my-fathers-death
–Kimberly Masteller, Jeanne McCray Beals Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art