By Lisa Tsering
SAN FRANCISCO - Priceless objects dating back to the 9th century, such as a gold and turquoise-encrusted drinking cup made from a human skull, an ornate copper and gilt statue of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara, a brightly colored silk thankga (scroll) painting of a serene White Tara -- are they harmless exotica, or the latest Chinese propaganda tools?
These items are among nearly 200 pieces to be shown June 12 through Sept. 11 in "Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World" at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
The San Francisco exhibit (the show has been to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Rubin Museum in New York City) is one of the very first times many of the treasures will be seen in the West. They were left behind when the Dalai Lama fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959 for exile in India.
The show has sparked debate over just how political a force religion and art can be.
Pro-Tibet activists are calling the show Chinese government propaganda that capitalizes on the exotic appeal of spectacular religious items. "What the Asian Art Museum is exhibiting is something the Chinese are using to camouflage their brutal suppression of Tibetan freedom," says Topden Tsering, head of the Bay Area branch of the Tibetan Youth Congress.
Terese Tse Bartholomew, the museum's curator of Himalayan and Chinese decorative art, worked with two other curators as well as Chinese officials to prepare the exhibition. The objects come from the Potala Palace in Lhasa (the Dalai Lama's official residence), the Norbulingka (his summer palace) and the Tibet Museum in Lhasa.
But is the exhibit propaganda?
"They can say whatever they want," says Bartholomew. "But nobody told me what to put in the exhibition."
Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, helped to lead protests against the show in New York. "We are not calling for a boycott," she says. "We're not saying people shouldn't see it. But we're making the point to everyone the context of the exhibition -- that it's being sponsored by the Chinese government."
China under Mao Zedong occupied Tibet in 1949, claiming it was a part of China. Chinese troops reportedly destroyed over 6,000 monasteries, and according to Tibet.com, the official Web site of the Tibetan government in exile, "hundreds of tons of valuable religious statues, thangkas, metal artifacts and other treasures were shipped to China either to be sold in international antique markets or to be melted down."
Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet expert at Bath University in England, observes, "What better way to neutralize Tibet as a political issue than to allow for exhibitions of objects from Tibet in the West, thus saying in effect: 'Look, we are good caretakers of the Tibetan culture and religion.'"
But exhibiting religious items in the West is not a mere PR move, says noted Tibet expert Melvyn C. Goldstein, co-director of the Center for Research on Tibet at Case Western Reserve University.
"The Chinese have been trying to influence Western thinking for a long time," says Goldstein. "This is just another attempt to show that Tibetan culture and religion are alive in China. The conflict with the Dalai Lama and the exiles is primarily a political conflict and the Chinese always try to separate it from their acceptance of Tibetan religion and culture (as they see it and define its limits)."
The most contentious issue to local Tibetans and their supporters is that the photo of the Dalai Lama will not get central placement and instead will be shown for a limited time in a separate space, alongside a few religious programs such as a mandala creation and thangka painting demonstration. Within Tibet, it is illegal to possess a photo of the Dalai Lama.
"The leaders of Beijing are deeply distrustful of him and his exile movement, to the point where even his image is disturbing," explains Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and the author of nine books on China including "Virtual Tibet," "Mandate of Heaven" and "Discos and Democracy."
"And, so, the price of doing business with China is to quarantine both his movement in-exile and any representation of him," Schell adds.
To Bartholomew, setting an altar to Tibet's Nobel Prize-winning exiled leader in such proximity to artwork on loan from the Chinese government would be a slap in the face for the Chinese.
"Politics and art need to be kept separate," she says. "The Chinese government would definitely close the show."
To counter what they see as the show's pro-Chinese agenda, activists convinced the museum to present a lineup of alternative programs, including a Tibetan film festival. The Asian Art Museum is the only U.S. host that actively reached out to the Tibetan community for input. But activists still say the museum's efforts at a balanced view of Tibet fall far short, and that their demands have fallen on deaf ears.
They plan to rally outside the museum, handing out brochures and displaying the Tibetan flag and photos of the Dalai Lama. Giovanni Vassalo, president of Bay Area Friends of Tibet, says, "It's an opportunity for us to present the true facts about the situation in Tibet."
PNS contributor Lisa Tsering is a staff reporter for India West, a San Leandro, Calif.-based news weekly.