Conversing with Clare Harris, Author of The Museum on the Roof of the World

If Dharamsala and Beijing are both using museums as a vehicle for a particular political message, then do you think there is a possibility that contemporary art exhibitions and galleries might be the spaces in which Tibet can be seen represented as a living, breathing place?

I do think that is what a lot of people hope to be the case. Contemporary art made by Tibetans, in my opinion, is one vehicle in which you can see signs of the vibrancy and complexity of Tibetan culture, not only in Tibetan speaking areas of the PRC but outside as well, and that is very important to me, to the artists themselves and to the Tibetans who see their work. But it’s not the only area in which a vibrant cultural life is being created by Tibetans; there is also music, film, writings of all descriptions, online and offline, etc. Plus there are many other things going on that are difficult to talk about given the current political situation, but the reason why I wrote about contemporary art is because art is what goes into museums and public spaces. The whole argument of the book is framed by the idea of the museum as an institution, and the problematic ways that Tibet has been represented in museums.

The whole argument of the book is framed by the idea of the museum as an institution, and the problematic ways that Tibet has been represented in museums.

So I include contemporary artworks (rather than Tibetan literature or music) in my book because they are usually tangible things that go into museum spaces. They have enabled their creators to demonstrate there is something vibrant going on in Tibet, something modernist or even post-modernist in terms of Tibetan cultural production. This is something I was interested in when I wrote my first book. But since 1999 when it came out, the development of Tibetan contemporary art has just gone through the roof! Now you can be in London, Venice, New York, and even in Beijing looking at artworks made by Tibetans, and that has got to be a good thing on one level. However there are a number of related problems that arise from this success story such as, Why are these works everywhere except Tibet? There are of course some galleries in Tibet as well as other kinds of spaces where these works can be encountered but currently there is not as big an audience for contemporary Tibetan art in Lhasa or Dharamsala as there is in New York (for example); the number of people who are interested in art is still very small. That is partly because there isn’t an infrastructure to support an art world in either Lhasa or Dharamshala. It is now possible to study fine art at Tibet University, but there aren’t any art journals, or art critics or lots of galleries of the sort you can find in London or Beijing. I’ve talked to many artists from Lhasa, and this is what they are absolutely desperate for: more interaction with other Tibetans, and especially Tibetans who think and read about art. I do think the community is there, but it’s small and for the moment quite underground. Until these things can be more supported structurally, I think it will remain the case that a lot of the work that has been made in Lhasa will come straight out of the country and go into these huge galleries and museums all over the world. However I do know that the artists in Lhasa are conscious of the fact that if a Tibetan artwork goes on display in San Francisco, that at least means it can be seen by diasporic Tibetans in the US.

In Chapter Seven, you mention that contemporary Tibetan art had its beginnings in the 1980s as a direct response to Chinese artists dominating the Tibetan art scene. I found this interesting; in my Masters’ thesis, I looked at cultural production related to Tibet from Chinese filmmakers and writers, and not only were the voices of Tibetans literally absent in the film The Horse Thief (1986), for example, they were also absent from the whole debate around the film then. In this way, wasn’t forming the Sweet Tea House Association a very significant move? Would you say that it was also quite bold for the time?

Yes, it was amazing and I wrote about it in my first book. It was incredibly revolutionary and brave. The culture in the 1980s in Lhasa was relaxed on one level, especially compared to now, but you still had to be a member of the Chinese Artists Association if you wanted to be an artist. And everything in the world of art production in Tibet in the 1980s was all pretty much controlled by significant Chinese figures such as Han Shuli. Actually, in this book I’ve gone back and slightly rephrased the situation because I think in my first book I didn’t give enough credit to Han Shuli. I’ve now interviewed him and many of the Tibetan artists who studied with him, such as Gonkar Gyatso and Gade. They were all heavily influenced by him at one point, and I thought I had missed that out in my first account.

Horse Thief

Dao ma zei (The Horse Thief)
DIRECTED BY Tian Zhuangzhuang
(Xi’an Film Studio, 1986)

In my current book, I argue that the presence of Chinese artists in Lhasa in the 1980s was in some ways stimulating — Han Shuli was the first one, for example, to break up the Buddha body and treat it in a Modernist way. Tibetan artists then took that idea and ran with it. But in Chapter Seven, I tried to say that the presence of Chinese artists was both a stimulant and also a depressant. The Sweet Tea House Association was specifically set up because Tibetan artists were not selected to go the national minorities art exhibition. So it was a reaction against Chinese control in the art world. That was a positive thing as they clubbed together to do something distinctively Tibetan, and the first ever agenda to produce a contemporary Tibetan form of making modern art was created. It was created in antithesis to Chinese control over the art world, so it was a brave and radical thing to do. It was also a major leap forward in terms of how Tibetans would use art as a way of self-identification and of distinguishing themselves from China in a visual and aesthetic form.

In my books I suggest that they still had to use an “encrypted vocabulary,” derived from Western modernism, to create abstract works which were not easily readable, or couldn’t be misinterpreted by censors. Obviously, if they did anything that was too overtly political, their work would never be exhibited and, of course ultimately artists want to exhibit their work. They primarily exhibited in tea houses and to other young Tibetans. But I think the style and forms they created at that point were the product of what was an increasingly tense atmosphere; towards the end of the eighties, there were riots and demonstrations, so there’s a combination of Tibetan independence in visual forms at the same time as having to do it in a careful way so that it didn’t meet with the ire of the Chinese art authorities.

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