Treasures from Tibetan Buddhist monasteries on display in Berlin, but not without controversy

The Associated Press, February 21, 2007

BERLIN, Germany -- A new exhibit of Tibetan art offers a rare glimpse of treasures from ancient Buddhist monasteries, but faces criticism that it whitewashes China's treatment of Tibet's ancient culture.

Curator Jeong-hee Lee-Kalisch called the exhibit that opened Wednesday at the Museum of Asian Art an opportunity to see masterpieces not typically otherwise found in galleries.

"There has never been an exhibition in which the objects came directly from the monasteries in central Tibet. In that sense, this is a world premier," Lee-Kalisch said.

The exhibit consists of about 150 works, many of which had never before left Tibet, gathered from the collections of five monasteries, two museums, the now-exiled Dalai Lama's Potala Palace in Lhasa and his summer palace in Norbulingka.

The objects date from the fifth to the early 20th centuries, including statues, paintings, sacred wall hangings and ceremonial objects.

The oldest object on display is a bronze statuette of Buddha Shakyamuni believed to have been made in China in 473. Among the most impressive, however, are 10 near-life-size statues of gilded copper depicting important historical figures in Tibetan Buddhism that greet visitors as they enter the exhibit, with alternately fierce or serene gazes.

Another stunning figure is the gilded bronze statue of Avalokiteshvara, a Buddhist embodiment of compassion, with 11 heads and his many arms arrayed in a fan pattern.

The exhibit has encountered criticism from some Tibetan exiles and their supporters who say it glosses over Chinese mistreatment of Tibetan culture.

Chinese Communist forces invaded Tibet in 1950, and thousands of monasteries and temples were destroyed during the decade-long Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong in 1966.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, fled the country in 1959 following a failed uprising and heads a government-in-exile in India.

Current Chinese President Hu Jintao — listed in the exhibition catalog as an honorary sponsor along with German President Horst Koehler — governed the Tibetan region between 1988 and 1992, where, Tibet exiles say, he violently cracked down on adherents of the pro-independence movement.

Protesters have been gathering in front of the museum with black tape over their mouths and banners accusing China of blacking out history and destroying Tibetan culture.

"The exhibition brackets out the history of Tibet since 1949, so it doesn't make any mention of the current political situation or the suppression of religion," said Kai Mueller, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet Germany.

"Germany is a pluralistic society where things are openly and honestly reported, not masked over," he added.

Kelsang Gyaltsen, an envoy of the Dalai Lama based in Geneva, supported the exhibition as a celebration of Tibetan culture but said it shrouds the current state of Tibetan civilization.

"Since a few years, there is a greater effort by the Chinese government to try to convince the outside world that Tibetan culture is alive, that Tibetan religion can be exercised without restraint in Tibet," Gyaltsen said.

"Instead of changing their repressive policies inside Tibet, they are trying to silence the criticism in the outside world with greater propaganda efforts," he said. "In some ways, this kind of exhibition is complicit with this effort by the Chinese government."

Nyima Tsering, director of the Administrative Bureau of Cultural Relics of Tibet Autonomous Region, China, which helped put together the exhibition, answered journalists' questions about China's role at the opening news conference Tuesday by praising China's support for Tibetan art.

"It is very difficult to take care of these cultural objects but with the support of the People's Republic of China over 6 billion yuan (US$775 million; US$589 million) has been spent over the last 50 years to take care of these cultural objects," Tsering said through a translator.

He added that from the exhibition "you can see that the Tibetan cultural objects are very well cared for."


EDITOR'S NOTE: "Tibet — Monasteries Open Their Treasure Chambers" runs until May 28. It is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Admission is €8 (US$10.40).

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