By Victoria Dalkey
The Tibetan exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco does not take place in a political vacuum.
The objects on display in San Francisco were brought here under the auspices of the Chinese government's Bureau of Cultural Relics from the Tibet Autonomous Region. Rinchin Tsereng, director of the bureau, spoke at the exhibit's press preview of the "peaceful liberation" of Tibet by his government.
However, the museum's catalog for "Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World" tells a different story.
For the first half of the 20th century, writes Robert Warren Clark, a former translator for the current Dalai Lama, "Tibet remained what it had been since the dawn of history: a unique civilization in a high, remote land largely untouched by the conflicts of the outside world, possessing its own distinctive language, culture, and religious government."
All that changed in 1950, when the People's Republic of China invaded Tibet.
China annexed Tibet the following year, Clark writes, sending soldiers, bureaucrats and workers to remake Tibet into a province of China.
A popular uprising in Tibet was crushed by Chinese troops in 1959, forcing the current Dalai Lama to flee to India, where he established a government in exile. The Dalai Lama remains today the symbol of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule.
Clark writes: "Over the next ten years, over one million two hundred thousand Tibetans, one fifth of the population, would die at the hands of the invader. Only thirteen of the six thousand two hundred and fifty four Buddhist monasteries of Tibet would escape systematic destruction."
Not surprisingly, for those who oppose what they view as the brutal Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Chinese government's involvement in this exhibition is the height of hubris.
Presenting the show of objects that rightfully belong to the Dalai Lama, said Chris McKenna, executive director of the Tibet Justice Center in Berkeley, is akin to breaking into the inner sanctum of the Vatican, taking the holiest relics and then presenting them in a museum without acknowledging how they got there.
Giovanni Vassallo, president of Bay Area Friends of Tibet, echoed that sentiment.
"We believe the show is being used by the Chinese as propaganda to show that religion is alive and well in Tibet under Chinese rule, while its policies are aimed at suppressing religion, which is aligned with Tibetan nationalism," Vassallo said.
Several groups held peaceful informational pickets outside the museum on the evening of its private gala June 10 and also June 12, when the exhibit was opened to the public. McKenna said his group and others will continue to picket on weekends, handing out pamphlets with information about the plight of the Tibetan people.
But the protesters are not asking the public to avoid going to the exhibit.
"This is not a boycott," said McKenna. "No members of any groups involved are saying, 'Don't go to the show.'
"Our goal," McKenna said, "is to give people the information they need to see these objects in the context of the recent political history of Tibet.
We want people to know that Tibet is a culture under threat."
The Asian Art Museum was prepared for the possibility of controversy over the exhibit.
"I think we're all aware of the complications and sensitivities surrounding the current political situation in Tibet," says Tim Hallman, the museum's associate director of marketing and communications. "But museum-goers understand that our mission as an art museum is to showcase important artworks. When faced with the decision to bow to complex issues or forge ahead to show the art, we choose to focus on fulfilling our mission and show the art.
"We believe the beauty and spiritual nature of these art objects transcends the obstacles to presenting the exhibition," Hallman says. "We educate global audiences about art; as art historians and arts administrators, we don't have the expertise to comment on politics. Other organizations and individuals are much more qualified to elaborate on those topics."
The museum also has attempted to reach out to the protesters by co-sponsoring a film series that will present different perspectives on Tibetan life. Many of these films, such as "Compassion in Exile," "Tibet:
Cry of the Snow Lion" and Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," are harshly critical of Chinese policies.
For information about the film series and other programs the museum has organized around this exhibition: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org