When art and politics collide
Exhibition brings Tibetan trove to US for the first time. Just don't ask to see a photo of the Dalai Lama.
SANTA ANA, CALIF.
Eleven-year-old Eris Young stands in front of a gleaming gilt cup in the main gallery of the Bowers Museum, her mouth slightly open.Skip to next paragraph
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"The detailed gold work is cool," she says of the Tibetan religious object, one of the centerpieces of "Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World." "But then, I looked more closely and realized I was looking at - what do you call it? A fuse line [on a human skull]."
"At first I thought, creepy!" says Eris. "But then I read about it, and realized that the holy guy whose head they used must have said, 'Yea! They're going to make a religious object out of my head,' and he probably thought that was pretty cool, so I didn't think it was creepy anymore. It was a way of honoring him."
For museum director Peter Keller, this type of innocent openness to a new culture is pure gold, something he is hoping to mine with his latest blockbuster effort. So far, so good, he says. Curiosity about the mountain region has drawn large crowds to this suburban Los Angeles museum. The show is packing them in with good reason: the 200 ritual objects - ranging from the 19th century skullcup and accompanying bone girdle to ornate Buddhist deity sculptures, not to mention a silk jacket woven with peacock feathers - have never before left Tibet.
"We were told this was the impossible exhibition, that the Tibetans would never let the material leave," says Keller, who worked with Chinese authorities for nearly four years. The objects come from three sources: the Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lama; the Norbuglinkha, or former summer palace; and the Tibet Museum. "But we had such a good relationship with the Chinese museums [in Beijing]. They coached us, and after six trips to Tibet, we were finally able to bring it back."
The show, which will travel to Houston, New York, and San Francisco, is organized into four areas: history and culture; paintings, sculptures, and textiles; ritual objects; and daily life of the nobility. Recent films of religious ceremonies shot in Tibet show orange-clothed monks blowing horns, filling the galleries with the ambience of another culture.
Despite this effort to give a sense that this is a living culture, a few details are missing - most noticeably, any mention of Tibet's spiritual and political leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India.
Also absent is any discussion of the current status of Tibet within China. In 1949, Communist forces invaded the neighboring country, which had been an independent nation for 1,300 years. The Chinese government still maintains tight control over Tibet.
"The success in getting this out was to avoid politics on either side," says Keller. "We've had contact with some very high-level lamas here and they're thrilled with the show," he adds.
In fact, says Keller, a geologist by training, the museum made contact with the 14th Dalai Lama to request his permission. His office issued a letter offering support for the traveling show, provided the objects are displayed with "informative explanations of their significance."
Whether the show provides the proper sort of context has become a flash point for the local Tibetan community.
"The museum has completely ignored key facts of Tibetan history," says Tenzing Chonden, the North American elected representative of the Tibetan government in exile (currently based in India).
"These objects belong to the 14th Dalai Lama, who was forced to flee his country and is struggling to survive in exile, yet he is not mentioned," says Mr. Chonden, who claims museum officials have actively prohibited visiting monks from displaying photos of the Dalai Lama or disseminating political information by local Buddhists.