On Wednesday October 26, Tibetan diaspora living in Dharamshala, India, were able to walk on the soil of their homeland thanks to US-based Tibetan artist Tenzing Rigdol. For the installation, titled Our Land, Our People, Rigdol transported 20 tons of soil from Chinese-controlled Tibet to Mcleodganj village in Dharamshala, the heart of the Tibetan government-in-exile as well as home to the 14th Dalai Lama and to the largest Tibetan exile community. The dirt was spread on a stage constructed on the playground basketball court of the local school Upper Tibetan Children’s Village.
In a speech inaugurating the three-day exhibition, prime minister-in-exile Dr. Lobsang Sangay said Wednesday morning, “It has been the dream of many Tibetans to return to Tibet and set foot on Tibet’s soil. Many have passed away with that wish unfulfilled. Today, I am stepping on this soil as a gesture of our struggle to reunite with our brothers and sisters in Tibet.”
The artist himself makes no overt political stance. Rather, he wishes to simulate the experience of returning home for other Tibetan exiles. Rigdol said he was motivated by the wish of his father to step foot in Tibet once more, which remained unfulfilled when he passed away September 18, 2008 in New York. “I decided that I would give Tibetans—who are living like refugees, in some cases separated from their families—a chance to connect with their native land,” said the artist.
Elderly attendees, some of whom have been exiled from their homeland for more than five decades, knelt down to kiss the soil. Some touched the soil to their forehead in veneration, others even ingested the dirt in a form of communion with their homeland. Those born in exile, who were touching Tibetan soil for the first time in their lives, felt a nostalgic affinity with the installation. Tenzin Lhawang, a school librarian who was born in India, told Associated Press, “I cannot describe my emotions as I touched the soil. I suddenly became emotional when I saw others walking on it and felt connected to a land I have never seen.”
Today, Friday 28, thousands of Tibetan exiles in attendence are encouraged to take away bags of soil with them, naturally bringing an end to Rigdol’s exhibition. The artist told ArtAsiaPacific “I wanted to play with the idea of impermanence.” Like the Tibetan diaspora, these sands will scatter throughout Dharamshala and throughout the globe. While at once allowing individuals to bodily “return” to Tibetan soil, Our Land, Our People also brings into question the notion of homeland and statehood, whether a culture can exist without physical bearings.