The series, titled ‘The Last Words’ was by Indian filmmaker Ritu Sarin and her husband Tenzing Sonam, a Tibetan in exile. It documents five letters from Tibetans who, since 2009, have set themselves on fire to protest what they say is the oppression of their homeland.
Sarin and Tenzing Sonam are film directors based in Dharamsala, India. The duo has been making films on Tibetan subjects for over 20 years, exploring themes of exile, identity, culture and political motivation in the Tibetan region.
The art summit, hosted in the Bangladeshi capital, is organised every two years, and has successfully drawn thousands of people – both from home and abroad. This year, the summit hosted a series of exhibitions, performance art, film screenings, book launches, and panel talks and discussions. More than 300 artists participated in the festival, putting Bangladesh on the global map for contemporary art.
But the spirit changed last Saturday, when a visit from the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Ma Mingqiang, pushed the event organisers to cover up the Tibetan exhibits – actually part of the Mining Warm Data exhibition curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt.
According to Sarin, the ambassador was incensed when he saw the exhibition, and the Chinese embassy later contacted the organisers to demand that the work be taken down to avoid “dire consequences” – a threat that included the potential shutting down of the summit.
So from Sunday onwards, a series of blank white frames stood at the exhibition in place of the artwork.
“When they told us what happened, we asked that the works be covered rather than removed,” says Ritu. “This way, there would be evidence of the censorship (by a foreign country!) that was taking place in Dhaka. It also seemed appropriate because the work itself deals with issues of human rights violations and the lack of free expression.”
A trace from the past
With the issue of Tibet being highly political in a global landscape largely dominated by China, this isn’t the first time artists have felt such restrictions.
This paranoia by the Chinese government is nothing new, says mountaineer and photographer Wasfia Nazreen, a Bangladeshi Tibetologist who has traveled and worked extensively with Tibetans, both inside and in-exile, for a decade.
“The Chinese government has been going to all extremes for the world to believe a certain narrative of Tibet that is mostly fictitious, to justify their claims and continued tight grip in the region,” says Nazreen, who has also been recognised by National Geographic for her work and activism.
“They have been, around the globe, attempting to boycott or silence any voice that disagrees with its official version of what is happening in Tibet.”
In fact, this wasn’t the first time such an attempt took place in Bangladesh. In 2009, the government, under pressure from Beijing, shut down an exhibition at Drik Gallery, titled ‘Into Exile: Tibet 1949 – 2009’.
While Sarin and Sonam were aware of the 2009 incident, they didn’t think their exhibition at the summit would be affected.
“We did know about that but we felt that our case was different,” says Sarin. “That exhibition focused exclusively on Tibet, albeit on a non-political theme, and therefore was much more visible. We did not expect this to happen in the summit as it was a small work amongst many hundreds of others.”
Sarin says the Samdani Art Foundation, which organises the art summit, was well aware of their exhibition and its content.
“We had earlier shown the full multimedia installation – ‘Burning Against the Dying of the Light’ – of which this work was a small part at Khoj Studios in New Delhi,” she said, adding that this wasn’t seen as a potential issue at all.
Other Tibetans’ work
When contacted, the Dhaka Art Summit organisers declined to comment on the matter. However, an official pointed out that there were other exhibitions on Tibet at the event that remained unaffected.
“There were the exhibitions by Tenzing Rigdol and Nortse which were not covered up,” said the official, referring to the two artists whose work also featured Tibetans struggles and stories.
Their work was part of the same exhibition where ‘The Last Words’ was set up. Why the Chinese ambassador made an issue only out of Sarin and Sonam’s exhibit is still unknown.
Since Saturday, many have taken to social media to express their anger at the decision by the summit organisers. However, many are even more upset that the Chinese ambassador went to such a length in a foreign country.
“Especially given our glorious history, we should’ve learnt that an “independent” country’s entities shouldn’t be fearfully bowing down to any foreign government’s threats which attempt to control our right to know or express,” says Nazreen. “Unfortunately, this has now created a dangerous precedent: today it is China, tomorrow it could be Saudi Arabia and so on. No true friendships can be so fear-driven. Yes we can economically or mutually be benefiting from other countries but that does not mean we sell our souls.”
The biennial art summit has over the years become a successful and popular platform for South Asian arts and culture. Many of the pieces at this year’s event summit had a latent political or social message – whether about the pollution of the Buriganga river, the enforced disappearances of free thinkers, or the male gaze on female bodies.
Art is not just about looking pretty. Starting from street art and graffiti to the art of the spoken word, installations and video, art has always communicated. The precise message – documentation of history, or a political stand or social commentary – varies from piece to piece, artist to artist. It is rather naïve to assume art can be depoliticised. But to remove art that is “political” is not just an attack on the freedom of expression. It defeats the entire purpose of art.
Syeda Samira Sadeque is a Dhaka-based writer and journalist