On February 25, a day before Tibetan artist Tashi Norbu was set to create his live-painting, IaoHin Gallery in Macau unexpectedly canceled the event after receiving threats from Beijing authorities that they would deport the artist should he enter the Chinese Special Administrative Region (Macau was a former Portuguese colony that was returned to China in 1999). The performance was set to take place in Lilau Square as part of the gallery’s celebrations for launching its new space.
“It is sad that I am banned to be present and perform my art and skills in Macau,” said the artist.
Based in the Netherlands, Norbu was informed by the gallery that it was “too risky” to cross the border into Macau upon his arrival at the Hong Kong International Airport. The anxiety expressed by the Chinese government suggests that it deems Norbu’s paintings as highly controversial, despite the fact that the artist’s works are not politically motivated.
Simon Lam, IaoHin Gallery’s curator, said in a statement: “I am personally very disappointed with authorities’ attitude to arts and seeing it as a threat, banning what is nothing else than pure art performance. This is not what Macau should be doing, censorship is simply wrong, and in this case it simply cannot be justified as Tashi has been allowed to perform in Hong Kong last week without any problems.”
Norbu’s paintings incorporate traditional Tibetan and Buddhist imagery to depict stories of modern life. He was educated as a traditional Tibetan thangka painter at the offices of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, and completed his Western art studies at the Saint Lucas Academy of Visual Arts, Belgium, in 2006.
For the Macau performance, Norbu had planned to present an on-site painting of a fire rooster, the zodiac symbol shared by China and Tibet. However, the artist was later advised not to proceed with the work as the shape of the rooster resembled that of China, which may have been perceived as inappropriate given the artist’s Tibetan heritage. He was also told not to wear white during his performance as the color symbolizes peace.
This is not an isolated incident. In 2016, the Chinese government was accused of censorship at the Dhaka Art Summit after Ma Mingqiang, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, became outraged at the sight of Last Words (2016) by Tibetan filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, which was comprised of five photographs of letters written by Tibetans who self-immolated in protest of Chinese oppression. Ma demanded the works be removed. In the end, organizers of the Dhaka Art Summit compromised and covered the photographs with white paper.
In 2009, Chinese diplomats ordered Bangladeshi police to shut down the exhibition “Into Exile: Tibet 1949–2009” by prohibiting visitors from entering the gallery. The show was organized by Dhaka’s Drik Gallery in collaboration with the Bangladesh chapter of Students for a Free Tibet.
Brittany Dale is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.
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