Nangdrol, an 18-year-old Tibetan living in Sichuan Province, China, penned a farewell letter on February 19, 2012. Translated, it read:
Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama! Long live all the lamas and tulkus (reincarnations) of the Land of Snow. May Tibetans be free from China’s oppressive rule. There is immense suffering under China’s rule, and this suffering is unbearable. There is no way to further endure this Chinese occupation, its terrible rule, this torture without trace. In the end the merciless Chinese will kill the Tibetans. Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Nangdrol then set himself on fire, his self-immolation the ultimate act of political protest.
Nangdrol’s letter came alive this past week as part of Last Words, a small series of photographs by Indian filmmaker Ritu Sarin and her partner, Tenzing Sonam, a Tibetan exile. The works, which document letters left by Tibetans who have self-immolated, were featured on a stretch of white wall at the Shilpakala Academy in Dhaka, as part of the Dhaka Art Summit, which bills itself as “the world’s largest non-commercial platform for South Asian Art.” The organizers of the summit, which ran February 5–8, had invited China’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Ma Mingqiang, to visit the show; upon encountering Last Words, he saw it for what it was — deeply, politically charged records of oppression and protest-as-politics — and demanded that the work be removed. The organizers of the summit capitulated to his wishes and duly covered up the work with thin sheets of paper.
“The fact that the Chinese government continues to dictate its terms on other nations with arrogance and impunity and tries to shut down every avenue of expression for us in exile to raise our voices on behalf of our beleaguered compatriots in Tibet, will only make us redouble our efforts,” the artists wrote in their Facebook album of their censored work.
Ironically, now that they’ve been censored, these photographs have also been activated, seen and read across social media and in large and small media outlets across the world. Helped along by Tibetan rights activist and writer Wasfia Nazreen’s initial Facebook post of the images, stories in the Indian Express, and HuffPo India have helped draw the line connecting this moment to the history of China’s oppression of the people of Tibet. This isn’t the sort of attention the Chinese government needs, and the remarkable thing is that the situation didn’t have to turn out this way. In almost any other forum, any other context in the international art world, the work would have been shown, left alone, and gone the way of a thousand others: commented upon by an elite of collectors and critics, then bought and stored in some climate-controlled closet.
The Dhaka Art Summit is co-sponsored by contemporary art collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, through their Samdani Art Foundation, and the Samdanis are betting that South Asian art is the next frontier in the international art world. Last Words was shown in the context of this moment, which has been built on the back of bottom-up, socially engaged institutions like the innovative school Pathshala and the state-funded Shilpakala Academy, both of which have long trained and nurtured new generations of promising multimedia artists. South Asian work is being exhibited, critiqued, and collected everywhere; South Asian artists are winning career-making awards. Given this, and the influence of the Samdanis — who were recently included on ArtReview’s Power 100 list — the summit’s four-day event was not just an exhibition but a market maker. Many of the summit’s other co-sponsors are also stars in the international art world’s constellation.
The Samdanis have, in the past, used their power well. The inclusion of Last Words in the summit was a brave curatorial decision that suggests the couple, as well as their foundation’s Mumbai-based curator, Diana Campbell Betancourt, are not only market movers, but also astute provocateurs. And they were choosing a work already deemed successful. According to Nazreen, Last Words had been shown before in Delhi as part of a larger solo exhibition, and due to its favorable reception, the artists were invited to show at the summit. So, the Samdanis were standing on powerful ground with Last Words — until the ambassador made his demands. Once he did, and the organizers (a term I’m using to encompass the Samdanis, Betancourt, and the summit’s head of administration) turned the work into a pentimento of its own suppression, and then, via social media, it was resurrected for worldwide public scrutiny, the Samdanis tarnished their reputation for curating rich cultural experiences.
The Chinese government has long felt a need to silence its critics, from Tiananmen a generation ago to Ai Weiwei’s recent detention when he was making political significant work. The Washington Post published an op-ed laying out China’s moves to quell perceived dissent at precisely the time its economy is growing at the slowest rate in 25 years: the government has little else to show its people but the promise of higher incomes. Nor is this the first time the Chinese government has censored art in Bangladesh. In 2009, with the help of the current ruling coalition, already in debt to China for investing in Bangladesh’s energy infrastructure, the Chinese government shut down an exhibition of rare images of life and protest in Tibet. The show, due to open at Pathshala’s sister organization, Drik Gallery, was closed by the state police. But not without Drik’s public protests, through the press and on social media, and, to their great credit, Drik and its founder, Shahidul Alam, mounted the exhibition anyway, outdoors in front of the gallery. Drik’s example is the one the Dhaka Art Summit’s organizers should have followed.
No doubt they realized they’d be savaged if they did not accede to the ambassador’s demands. The Bangladeshi government might have pulled whatever license allowed them to host their exhibition in the academy’s quasi-public space. Or the Chinese government could have threatened to block all travel within China and Hong Kong. The threats leveled against the summit would surely have carried the same devastating consequences faced by Drik. Yet, he stared down those threats; the summit and its organizers did not.
Drik’s was a solo operation; the summit’s is not. Perhaps the unnamed threat leveled against the summit was effectively a corporate one, directed not just at the Samdanis but also at the event’s other co-sponsors, some of whom have interests in China or are based there. Perhaps the networked corporate economy couldn’t withstand a denial of entry into China’s (art) market — especially with Art Basel Hong Kong on the horizon — and perhaps, in obligation to their co-sponsors, the leaders of the summit capitulated. This is unfortunate. But this was also only the summit’s third exhibition; its fourth, in 2018, will likely be larger, bringing with it with more critical acclaim and, one hopes, more potent art and integrity.