Volume 74, Number 43 | March 02 - 08, 2005

Chinese takeover of Tibet protested at art opening

By Albert Amateau

Villager photo by Corky Lee

Protesters at opening of exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art

A gala reception for “Treasures from the Roof of the World,” a special exhibit of art from the palaces and museums in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, attracted more than 500 invited guests and about 20 protesters organized by Students for a Free Tibet and the Tibetan Youth Congress last week to the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea.

Carrying signs that said “China Stole My Country” and “China Stole My Heritage,” the protesters stood behind a barrier on the sidewalk in front of the Rubin Museum on W. 17th St. on a cold Feb. 23 evening urging guests to pass up the invitation. Their leaflets dubbed the exhibit “Treasures Stolen From the Roof of the World.”

But even guests who sympathized with the students and deplored the 1959 takeover of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China went in to see the special exhibit on two floors of the new museum. Among the guests were Tibetan Buddhist monks from Lhasa, collectors of Tibetan art, Chelsea neighbors and graphic artists from all over Manhattan.

The protest was strictly nongovernmental, according to the Office of Tibet, the official representative in New York of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. “We do not condone the protest,” said Nawang Rabgyal, a spokesperson, in a telephone interview later. “We have nothing to do with it. This is a free country and the students can do what they want,” he added.

Jeff Watt, curator at the Rubin Museum, said the Dalai Lama himself had written a letter in support of the exhibit in Feb. 2002 to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Cal., which organized the exhibit.

“Despite the wholesale destruction that has taken place in Tibet in recent decades, some of the works of art have survived,” the Dalai Lama’s letter says. “I believe that if people can visit this exhibit…and have access to informative explanation of their significance, they will come to a better understanding of the Tibetan people and their traditions. I hope that such efforts will contribute to saving Tibetan culture from disappearing forever,” the letter said.

But the explanatory texts in the exhibition make no reference to China’s takeover.

“I think this exhibit keeps the culture alive as far as most people are concerned,” said Paul Groncki, a Chelsea resident and community activist who was one of the Rubin Museum guests. “Before China took over Tibet, no one knew anything about the country or its culture,” said Groncki.

A man who identified himself only as a collector of Tibetan art observed that before 1911 Tibet had been a Chinese province for several centuries. “So even if the art was ‘stolen,’ who was it stolen from?” he added. However, Alison Aniston, an artist who lives in Westbeth, agreed that the 1959 Chinese takeover of Tibet was brutal and said she had conflicting feelings about visiting the exhibit. “They [China] tried to destroy the culture and when they found they couldn’t, they turned it into a tourist attraction,” Aniston said.

Another visitor said that during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, American troops entered Beijing, looted the Imperial Palace and made off with Tibetan art objects that eventually found their way into private U.S. collections.

The 126 art objects in “Treasures From the Roof of the World” come from the Potala Palace, the Norbulingka Palace and the Tibet Museum in Lhasa. The Bowers Museum in cooperation with the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China selected the items and mounted the traveling exhibit. In addition to showing in Santa Ana, the exhibit went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and will go later to San Francisco before returning to Tibet. At the Rubin Museum, at 150 W. 17th St., in the building formerly occupied by Barney’s, the show opened Feb. 19 and closes May 9.

The art objects include a Sanskrit scroll written by Buddhist monks in Northern India about 1,000 years ago. “The reason this has survived in this condition is because it has been buried in a palace at an altitude of 5,000 ft. for 1,000 years,” said Watt, regarding the scroll, which looks as if it were created yesterday.

The Dalai Lama had been shown images of all the items in the exhibit and identified the ones that he personally used before his 1959 exile in India, Watt said. “He saw one gold bowl and said, ‘Oh, yes, they used to give me soup in that,’ ” said Watt.

Lisa Schubert, director of external affairs for the Rubin Museum, said, “We’re not responding to political things. It’s our mission to bring the most important and most beautiful art of the Himalayas to as wide a public as possible.”

But protesters in front of the museum last week said that by not referring to the Chinese takeover, the Rubin Museum’s special exhibit has indeed taken a political position in support of China’s Tibet policy.

One demonstrator, Geshi Ten Ba, 46, who left Tibet in 2000, said, “It’s very hard for someone who loves freedom and worships His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] to live in Tibet.” He said he had been a student of Tenzen Delek, a Buddhist monk who had been sentenced to death by the Chinese government but whose sentence was commuted to life in prison after two years of international protest.

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