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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Contemporary Tibetan Art on Display in Beijing

September 26, 2010

Stephanie Ho
Radio of Free Asia (RFA)
September 23, 2010

Beijing, September 23, 2010 -- A new exhibition
at a gallery on the outskirts of Beijing is
bringing contemporary Tibetan art to the Chinese
public and the rest of the world.

A row of young Tibetan artists stand in front of
a towering sculpture of a traditional Tibetan
religious object, a stupa. The shape was
recognizable, but this stupa is made out of empty beer bottles.

Tseten Kalsang is one of two brothers who created
the beer bottle stupa. He says his artwork is
about the dialogue between religion, tradition
and modernity.  He adds that Tibet's tradition
already has been portrayed well, so he is trying
to show how the modern world also has affected
Tibetan culture. He says the beer bottle stupa is
an example of how many cultural changes start with alcohol and food.

Another artist -- long-haired, middle-aged Penpa
-- paints self-portraits. The sometimes naked
figures are anguished, with eyes that reveal inner anxiety.

Penpa says many people think of Tibet as a
backward place, with an art scene dominated by
religious paintings known as thangkas. He says
this exhibit has given Tibetan artists a chance
to show the world that Tibet also has a thriving contemporary art scene, too.

Tension with China on display

The exhibit in Songzhuang, just outside Beijing,
is called the Scorching Sun of Tibet. It brings
to China's capital a modern look at a region that
has long been troubled. Many Tibetans oppose
Chinese rule, and complain the Chinese
authorities try to repress their culture, which is based on Tibetan Buddhism.

Beijing says it has brought greater prosperity to
the region and freed it from ancient
feudalism.  Still, thousands of Tibetans have
followed their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile in India.

Tsering Nyandak's paintings depict objects --
people and machines -- against desolate, almost
pastel-colored, backgrounds.  One of his works
references riots that rocked Lhasa in
2008,  which he thinks were not depicted
correctly by either Chinese or Western media.

"Back then, media had a crucial role, but they
did not portray reality at all. Sometimes,
reality can be very specific, very personal, if
the things in the news are generalized, then it
becomes either political or very ideologically oriented," said Nyandak.

The 2008 riots involved an initially peaceful
Tibetan demonstration that turned violent after
protesters attacked ethnic Han Chinese residents.

Officials say around 20 people died, but Tibetans
say Chinese security forces killed any more
Tibetans. Afterward, scores of Tibetans were
arrested and Chinese authorities barred most
foreigners from going to the region.

At the time of the riots, only Chinese
journalists were allowed into Tibet. The
government cut off Internet and mobile phone
access, which made it difficult to verify what had happened.

Well-known Chinese contemporary art critic Li
Xianting is the exhibit's curator. He says he
first had the idea to hold it in 2007.

Li says that the events of 2008 had an effect on
him, but did not delay the exhibit because the
artists needed time to create enough artwork to
fill the large Songzhuang Art Museum.

Tibet's traditional culture disappearing

One of Li's favorite works involves a grouping of
30 different Tibetan letters, cast in iron, each
lying on separate piles of dirt arranged on the
floor. He says he believes written language is an
intrinsic part of any culture.

Li says he was surprised to discover that many of
the young Tibetan artists in the exhibit did not
read or write that well in their own
language.  He describes this as a "very serious
matter," and says he thinks it is, in his words,
"a form of control over Tibetans" that there is
not enough Tibetan language instruction in their schools.

The tension between tradition and the modern
world is the overall theme of the exhibit. One
work shows rows of hundreds of small mock clay
plaques, covering a wall. They look like
traditional Buddhas, but actually are Mickey
Mouse figures. In other paintings full of
recognizable Tibetan symbols, the figures posed
as traditional Buddhas turn out to be men in
business suits or curvaceous women in bikinis.

Prayer wheels are ubiquitous to Tibetans, and
there are four at the entrance to the exhibit.
Instead of covering the wheels with religious
mantras, though, the artist uses the names of
four generations of Chinese leaders -- Mao
Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao
-- as a way of representing a process of
assimilation and change for people in Tibet.
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