Two Dharamshala-based filmmakers have accused China of “bullying” Dhaka Art Summit organisers to clamp down on their Tibetan exhibit at the prestigious event. The artwork, which was “covered up” after reported objection from China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, paid homage to 149 Tibetans, who self-immolated themselves to make their voices heard. It comprised letters drafted by five protesters just before they burned themselves.
But on Sunday, as visitors combed through several galleries at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy — which hosted 17 solo projects, five exhibitions, eight durational performances, film programmes and book launches — they found one wall with five frames on the first floor covered with white sheets of paper. The work beneath the shroud belonged to filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. Titled “Last Words” it was part of the duo’s earlier exhibition, Burning Against the Dying of the Light, which portrayed the Tibetan struggle.
“They had to be covered because the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh (Ma Mingqiang) found the works offensive, during a visit to the summit on Saturday,” said Tenzing Sonam, who was informed about the objection on Saturday evening.
“We were told by the curator (Diana Campbell Betancourt) that he exploded as soon as he saw it and asked the works to be removed immediately or face consequences,” added Sonam.
While the filmmaker duo flew back from Dhaka to Delhi on Sunday morning, they said they were in constant touch with the curator as well as the Samdani Art Foundation, headed by Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, which organises the summit that is in its third edition. “We understand their position. They are trying to frame an appropriate response. With an event of such magnitude, one can’t really take any chance,” said Sonam. However, Sarin accused China of “bullying”.
“This is bullying. The Chinese are asking for the works to be removed in a foreign country. We have just taken five letters that are actually available online; it is not even an interpretation,” said Sarin.
The installation that travelled to Dhaka was one of the several works that were part of the couple’s solo exhibition that took place at Khoj Studios in Delhi from December 10 to 31.
About the response in Dhaka, Sonam said, “In Bangladesh too the response was wonderful. A lot of people found it very moving and shocking. Many people don’t know much about the Tibetan movement in Dhaka.” He claimed that this was not the first time that the Chinese had clamped down on a Tibetan exhibit in Bangladesh. In 2009, the Chinese embassy, he said, had asked the government to shut the exhibition — “Into Exile | Tibet 1949 – 2009” — featuring the journey of “Tibetans from their Homeland to Exile” organised by the Students for a Free Tibet, Bangladesh.
“I had forgotten about that incident but now all of it is coming back,” Sonam added. The organisers refused to comment.