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.
"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.
"They are kowtowing to the Chinese," Mr. Chonden says, "and on behalf of all free Tibetans, I am outraged and affronted."
Several organizations banded together this past week, demanding a meeting with the Bowers museum to explore ways to include more information in the show.
The exhibit also raises questions about whether it is appropriate to display religious objects without a full explanation of the social and political context in which they exist.
"I'm not sure it's ever possible to divorce objects from their cultural setting," says Minnie Cancellaro, executive director of the Tibet Justice Center in Berkeley, Calif.
"But it's impossible to display cultural or religious or artistic objects without talking about the political situation in Tibet," says Ms. Cancellaro. Theoretically, it's possible for a visitor to the Bowers Museum to leave the show believing that religion in Tibet is thriving and that religious practices aren't in jeopardy.
"In fact," she says, pointing to the 3,000 refugees leaving the country each year due to religious persecution, "the very fabric of Tibet's religious and cultural identity is threatened every day by the occupation of China."
Keller points out that the Chinese are helping to rebuild the Potala Palace, as well as many of the monasteries and nunneries that suffered great damage during the years of China's Cultural Revolution.
While Keller concedes that he may be "a bit naive" about the situation, he says, "That was a tragic time for everyone. The Chinese didn't do anything to Tibet that they didn't do to themselves."
Current political information may be missing on the exhibition floor, but it is present in the show catalog, an elegant doorstop of a book written by Tibetan expert Robert Clark, one of the show's curators.
"This show inherently has a political context that you can't escape," Mr. Clark says. From his personal experience, he believes art and politics are inseparable when it comes to a culture under siege.
"My own culture is Jewish," he says. "The Germans burned the synagogues in Europe but preserved a few as museums. You'd go in and see this beautiful art and see no mention that they were actively exterminating that race."
Clark is dismayed by the absence of information in the exhibit itself, but believes the Bowers Museum is making a contribution.
"I'm not happy with the absence of political information in the show," he says, "but I think the Bowers did the best they could."
He agrees with those in the Tibetan community who feel the objects have a power of their own and may help give people some affinity with the culture, "so that when they learn more about what is going on in Tibet, they will raise their voice in support."
Martin and Allison Young brought their daughter Eris to the Bowers with that lesson in mind.
What Mr. Young calls the startling levels of craftsmanship and sophistication tell a story of their own. China would like the world to believe that Tibet is a primitive, backward culture in need of modernities such as electricity and roads, he says.
"But these sculptures tell a different story," he says, pointing to a gilt copper statue called the Eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Universal Compassion. "This rivals anything that might come out of Western culture, in detail, artistry, craftsmanship.
"Maybe," says Young, "if more people understand what Tibet really is, they will fight to preserve the real culture and not allow it to be reduced to a museum curiosity."