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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

'Tibetan Portrait': All you need is love

June 23, 2009

by Michael J. Fressola

Staten Island AWE

Sunday June 21, 2009


Phil Borges explores the strength of forgiveness while photographing 'Tibetan Portrait'


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Now that the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art is officially pedigreed -- it recently joined both the state and national Registers of Historic Places -- a little modernization is in order.


It's already under way, as it happens, with "Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion," a two-part installation purchased by means of a $10,000 grant from the Staten Island Foundation.


Besides compactness -- the museum is small -- the installation has one great advantage, according to museum director Meg Ventrudo: Prefabricated display panels.


"It's always a little tough here," she said, "since we don't really have regular walls."


The stone-and-timber construction evokes a small, high-altitude Tibetan building. It's amazingly atmospheric, but hanging things is tricky.


"Tibetan Portrait" has photographs, text panels and maps, a listening station (a monk chanting the universal mantra, "Om mane padme hum") and even a push-and-sniff opportunity (juniper or cedar).


The premise of the show is partly artistic/spiritual and partly political. The portraits are the work of photographer Phil Borges, who visited Dharamsala, India, in 1994. Well over 100,000 refugee Tibetans live there.


The ex-pats often had terrible accounts. Borges recalled, "Nearly everyone I photographed had histories that included imprisonment, torture or the death of family and friends before escaping Tibet."


He resolved to enter Tibet. Once inside, he photographed infants, vigorous adults and wizened 80-year-olds. All are posed outdoors against the sky and the Himalayas.


In what has become his signature innovation, Borges preserves the setting in black and white, but scans the flesh and hair of his subjects in lifelike color.



He found refugee Tibetans were more forthcoming than their counterparts inside. But in or out, he discovered, "People were generous and very forgiving ... remarkable lightness and joy radiated from the Tibetans I met."


Even refugees who had been tortured -- one monk lost 20 teeth in a single session -- rejected bitterness and anger. Their phrase: "I no longer have anger for the Chinese."


When China invaded Tibet in 1949, a long era of autonomy ended. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the country, fled to Dharamsala, where he still lives today. Some 100,000 Tibetans followed him.


Back home, many perished under Chinese rule. Monasteries, schools and libraries were destroyed. New roads were cut through the mountains and thousands of Chinese were resettled in Tibet order to dilute/destroy the indigenous culture. There were reports of systematic rape and compulsory marriage.


And yet, there's virtually no discussion of a coup or armed resistance. Tibetans practice an advanced Buddhist regimen of indiscriminate compassion.


It is easy, in the context, to see exactly this in the luminous faces of "Tibetan Portrait." Much like Mohandas Gandhi next door in India, Tibetans believe they can disarm the oppressor with affection and non-violence.


It's "all you need is love" and "turn the other cheek" at 20,000 feet.


Or as the Dalai Lama writes in "Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion" (Rizzoli), the show's companion volume: "There is no greater vehicle than the daily practice of compassion."

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