Painters' brushes with identity crisis

In the Image of Tibet

August 11, 2000

This is primarily a book about the image of Tibet, materially and metaphorically. While it takes paintings created in occupied Tibet (known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People's Republic of China) and in the principal exilic community in India as its point of departure, it also examines issues of broader concern. Questioning the validity of the romantic image of Tibet as "Shangri-La" among the exilic community and in the West, the book makes clear the angst and anguish of a people who have not only lost their homeland but whose culture is being systematically destroyed by the Han Chinese.

Clare Harris recounts with empathy the acute political and psychological problems faced by Tibetan artists in TAR and Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas, where the Tibetan government in exile has settled since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled his country. The book is about the struggle between tradition, which the government-in-exile believes must be preserved to maintain Tibetan identity, and the forces of modernism against which, in this age of revolutionary changes in communication, it is difficult for a community to insulate itself.

The book begins by describing the West's image of Tibet followed by that of the exiled community in India. Tibetans, faced with cultural extinction,may have deliberately adopted a "utopian" and "romantic" view of their country for political expediency rather than from any deeply held convictions. Hence the hostility in official Dharamsala circles to the introduction of modernist ideas in art and culture, fearing that national identity would dissolve or blur in paintings rendered in more "international" styles.

This is clear from some of the images created by such gifted artists as Gongkar Gyatso, whose powerful works Harris discusses at length in a chapter introducing the unfamiliar world of Tibetan art in the TAR. It comes as a dramatic climax to a discussion of the earlier struggles and stumbling blocks for Tibetan painters. Tibetan painters in the TAR were regarded as a minority and were forced to paint in the socialist-realist manner. In the exilic community modernity was discouraged for different reasons.

Harris's book is not just about paintings but about political subjugation,cultural genocide and clashes, ideological and psychological warfare and anguish, and identity crisis. It is a book that should be read not merely by those interested in Tibetan history and culture but by all those concerned with the conflict between religious and political ideologies, between reconstructed romanticised "orientalist" images of cultures and modern notions of objectivity, ethnicity and nationality.

Pratapaditya Pal is research fellow, Norton Simon Museum, California, United States.

In the Image of Tibet

Author - Clare Harris
ISBN - 1 86189 039 7
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £17.95
Pages - 220

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