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Protesters Dub Tibetan Art Exhibit ‘Pro-China Propaganda’
Lisa Tsering

“The artifacts at the Rubin Museum are the stolen cultural heritage of the Tibetan people,” said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Student for a Free Tibet. “The minute it agreed to host the exhibit, the Rubin Museum became a partner in the Chinese government’s propaganda campaign on Tibet.”

An exhibit of Tibetan art that opened in New York City Feb. 19 has been blasted by activists who claim that the art is the “stolen heritage of the Tibetan people” and is being used as pro-China propaganda.

The exhibit, “Tibet, Treasures from the Roof of the World,” is now on display at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York through May 8. The exhibit will next travel to San Francisco, where it will run at the Asian Art Museum from June 12 through Sept. 11.

“The artifacts at the Rubin Museum are the stolen cultural heritage of the Tibetan people,” said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Student for a Free Tibet. “The minute it agreed to host the exhibit, the Rubin Museum became a partner in the Chinese government’s propaganda campaign on Tibet.”

Over 6,000 monasteries were destroyed by Chinese troops when China under Mao Tse-Tung invaded and occupied Tibet in 1949, claiming that the independent country was a part of China.

According to Tibet.com, the official Web site of the Tibetan government in exile, “hundreds of tons of valuable religious statues, thangkas (scroll paintings), metal artifacts, and other treasures were shipped to China either to be sold in international antique markets or to be melted down …

“This physical desecration and destruction was accompanied by public condemnation of religion, and humiliation and ridicule of religious persons. Religious texts were burnt and mixed with field manure; the sacred mani stones (stones or slates with prayer inscriptions) were used for making toilets and pavements; monks and nuns were forced to have sex in public and demanded to perform miracles; and ruined monasteries and temples were turned into pigsties,” states Tibet.com.

Many of the pieces in this show come from the Potala Palace in Lhasa (the Dalai Lama’s official palace) as well as the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, the Norbulingka. Among the nearly 200 exquisitely crafted sacred objects in the exhibition are the official seal of the Fifth Dalai Lama and a statue of the 13th century king Songtsen Gambo, who brought Buddhism from India to Tibet.

Kunga Thinley, president of the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress, cited an internal Chinese government document leaked in April 2001 that set out a policy to raise awareness of Tibet’s colorful traditions as a way to “make its rule of Tibet appear legitimate in the West.”

Thinley says the document outlines the need for “external propaganda on Tibet” in order to build “favorable international public opinion” of Chinese rule in Tibet.

“In Tibet, photos of the Dalai Lama are banned and showing any loyalty to him can result in imprisonment and torture,” Thinley stated in a press release. “This is how China treats Tibetans and our culture when it’s not trying to impress the rest of the world.”

Lhadon Tethong claims the art is stolen from the Tibetan people because the works are “ultimately within the control of the Chinese government, who got them by illegally occupying Tibet,” she said from New York. “Tibetans themselves do not have control over the pieces … the seal of the Fifth Dalai Lama belongs to His Holiness [the 14th Dalai Lama], not to the Chinese.”

She added, “Chinese policies are reducing Tibetan Buddhist culture to nothing more than a collection of museum pieces.”

She added, “Chinese policies are reducing Tibetan Buddhist culture to nothing more than a collection of museum pieces.”

Free Tibet activists plan to be on hand outside the museum every weekend during the run of the exhibition, handing out brochures. “We are not calling for a boycott,” Tethong said. “We’re not saying people should not see it. But we are making the point to everyone there the context of the exhibition – that it’s being sponsored by the Chinese government.”

Caron Smith and Jeff Watt, co-curators of the show at the Rubin Museum, have spoken to the Tibetan activists and say they understand their concerns. “There’s value in what they are doing,” Smith said. However, she added, the show represents what may be the only chance exiled Tibetans here will ever get to see the pieces, regardless of how they got here.

Watt said, “I applaud the activists for keeping the movement alive … [but] I don’t want people to spread misinformation about the objects. I have seen some press releases where history has not been presented accurately by certain Tibetan groups,” he said, declining to specify which groups gave out the misinformation or what information was incorrect.

Watt added that he understands the current situation between Tibet and China, but, he said, the show was valuable for its presentation of the “longer view on history, which includes the relation between Tibet and China and their neighbors, too.”

“I encourage all Tibetan parents here to take their children to see these pieces of art. These pieces are as significant as the Declaration of Independence would be to Americans,” Watt told this writer, apparently with no sense of irony.

Lisa Tsering, a writer based in Oakland, California, is entertainment editor of India-West newsweekly.