Dechen and High Peaks Pure Earth work as part of Banned Expression, an awareness campaign discussing Tibetan rights to freedom of opinion for writers and artists to express their views freely and fearlessly.
This is art, according to Dechen.
For more than a thousand years, Tibetan art has been heavily connected to religion (Tibetan Buddhism) but this is slowly changing. Contemporary Tibetan art is still relatively new and generally refers to art created after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. Under China’s occupation, contemporary art still has Buddhist influences but in general the focus has shifted from religion to identity and has reflected related anxieties. Common themes in modern art are of land, home, language and cultural preservation. Running in parallel to Tibetan art from Tibet is Tibetan art in exile which has the freedom to be much more overtly political.
Tibetan artists, poets, writers, designers, singers, rappers, photographers, dancers and filmmakers all play an important role in holding a mirror up to society and examining what it means to be Tibetan. In doing so, they are contributing to keeping Tibetans all across the world united in their shared heritage. As contemporary Tibetan artist Gade says, “You need to express the things and events that you yourself have encountered, you have to express the real situation. In the past, we would never paint our own life experiences, because that would be too subjective. For instance Tibet, what is Tibet? Everyone has different ideas and different experiences and it is precisely these different elements that make up Tibet.”
Art is creative expression of any form, whether tangible and intangible. Art is its own language and great art has the power to move and provoke a purely emotional response. The space for the creation of art should be free, open and without limits.
The creative world’s best-kept secret
The poet, writer and blogger Woeser is currently one of the most important Tibetan voices out there. I spoke about her at the Lush Summit as she is so inspiring. Woeser, as a Tibetan, a woman and an artist, is uniquely positioned to observe and comment on her society.
Graduating from university, she found work as a journalist and an editor before returning, in 1990, to the capital Lhasa, where she served as an editor for the government-run journal Tibetan Literature. Despite publishing a bestselling book Notes on Tibet from a Chinese publishing house in 2003, the work was condemned as a book on a “forbidden subject”. Thereafter, Woeser faced persecution and censorship, and was ordered to self-criticism and confessions.
Because she refused to acknowledge any “mistake” or undergo political education, she found herself having to move to exile in Beijing. As part of her punishment by the state, she was not only removed from her job at Tibetan Literature, she was denied her social welfare, access to any government benefits and her pension was revoked.
Woeser has declared herself an independent writer and blogger and continues to be one of the most eloquent critics of state violence, political oppression, and cultural suppression in Tibet. Denied a passport, Woeser is unable to travel outside of China and is under constant surveillance both in Beijing and when she travels around Tibet. She updates her blog Invisible Tibet on a regular basis, often with first-hand news and resources related to the current situation in Tibet. On the website that I edit, High Peaks Pure Earth, Woeser’s articles are often translated and she is our most popular author.
Woeser inspires Tibetans all over the world with her courage. Her poetry, her articles, her photographs and the documentation of Tibet’s recent history as well as her everyday life speak truth to power. As Woeser has defiantly written in the notes to a 2008 poem titled “The Fear in Lhasa” directly addressing the Chinese government, “You have the guns. I have a pen.”
As editor of High Peaks Pure Earth, I see my role mainly as amplifying the voices of Tibetans inside Tibet who are creatively expressing themselves, often at great personal risk. My hope is that through amplifying their voice, I am also amplifying their messages and helping them to reach a wider audience. Although art doesn't require much translation as such, adding context always helps and I see English translations as a service to the writers, poets and singers in Tibet who are going to extraordinary lengths to be heard.
The power of the artist
In Tibet, artists are playing a crucial role reflecting the current situation. Subtly they are conveying the politics but they are also expressing ideas and thoughts about wider aspects of society and social issues. Censorship and the sensitive political climate force artists to communicate in an abstract and coded way but very creatively.
Two established contemporary artists Nortse and Gade, based in Lhasa, have created a new space for art called the Scorching Sun Art Lab. And although it is still young and in development, Nortse has said "I believe that the simple fact that we exist is already very valuable."
This idea that Tibetans are creating their own spaces is gaining momentum. A young photographer called Nyema Droma set up her own studio in Lhasa because: "a lot of Chinese models, Korean models come to Tibet, and do beauty shoots [fashion shoots]. I think in these kinds of situations it’s hard for Tibetan people to get anything from it. If Tibetans are doing these things, then at least the magazines would sell in Tibet and the money would go back into Tibet. There could even be a free exhibition in Tibet, but no-one has ever done this."
All the work that the independent artists I have mentioned here offer a counter narrative to the state and official art (propaganda) about Tibet. The importance of this counter narrative can not be understated.
At the same time we can see that artists in exile such as Tenzing Rigdol and Tashi Norbu are directly engaging with issues such as the self-immolation protests in Tibet, identity, home and place. Tibetan writers, poets and filmmakers are similarly taking on these topics and they form the core of their works. Exiled poet Bhuchung D Sonam has said: “Tibetans need to take control of their own narratives. We need to articulate our reality in a model that appropriately reflects our daily experiences as a people living under occupation and as refugees.”
Banned Expression: Support Free speech in Tibet performance, featured on the main stage at Lush Summit