【Profile】Tibetan Refugee Tenzing Rigdol: Bringing Tibet Home by Art

Tenzing Rigdol

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Asia Society Hong Kong Center got a full house for screening Bringing Tibet Home, an autobiographical documentary of Tenzing Rigdol, a 33-year-old Tibetan Refugee Artist. Seated in the audience, Rigdol was watching himself on the screen presenting a tray of smuggled Tibetan soil to Dalai Lama in his office at Dharamsala, North India. His Holiness, upon receiving it, scribbled “Tibet” in Tibetan calligraphy with his finger.

Rigdol presenting a tray of smuggled Tibetan soil to Dalai Lama in the documentary.

On the day he visited the Dalai Lama, October 26th, 2011, Rigdol’s art installation titled Our Land, Our People opened to the public in Dharamsala, the largest community of Tibetans in exile. Previously, the New York-based artist spent months preparing for navigating the international borders between China, Nepal and India, a trip covering over 7,500 miles, to smuggle 20 tons of Tibetan soil to use in the installation.

Our land, Our people art installation.

During the three-day exhibition, thousands of Tibetans, men and women, young and old, got a chance to walk on the smuggled tens of square meters’ Tibetan soil. Up on the stage also installed with a microphone and a video recorder for people to express themselves. In the documentary, a Tibetan girl was standing in front of the microphone, crying with thankfulness to Rigdol. “I talked to many refugees there, they were sad for unable to go back home, and happy for touching homeland soil,” said Rigdol.

Tibetans giving honor to DaLai Lama on the smuggled Tibetan Soil.

Voice of Tibet, an independent Tibetan radio station at Dharamsala, helped to organize Our Land, Our People and held a special panel with Rigdol and Tsetan on Art and Tibetan struggle, said Tenzin Paldon, the administrator of its Facebook page. “What he did was incredible, seeing old Tibetans walking on the soil was overwhelming for me personally too, “ Paldon said, “I applaud Rigdol for helping keep the flame of Tibet alive within the young Tibetans through his art.”

With spies and agents closely watching in this region, the project thus became a huge gamble for everyone involved. “It was dangerous,” recalled Rigdol, “with so many official checkpoints and police in the borders, I put a lot of money and patience to get everything done.” The whole story, including months of smuggling soil and the influential art installation, was documented by his friend Tenzin Tsetan Choklay, another Tibetan Artist, and then produced as Bringing Tibet Home, combined with a review of Rigdol’s artwork and experience. “It is an artist’s work, a wonderful way for anybody to learn about Tibetan culture,” said S.Alice Mong, Executive Director of Asia Society Hong Kong Centrer, the organizer of this screening.

S.Alice Mong, Executive Director of Asia Society Hong Kong Centrer, host the screening.

Rigdol was born in Nepal, where his then-12-year-old father fled to during China’s Culture Revolution. “Everything was destroyed in Tibet,” he said, “My father carried his mother on the back and took about 45 days to cross the border and the Himalayas.” After receiving secondary education in India, he then moved to America with his parents and studied at University of Colorado, Denver. There, he took several art courses and started researching on Tibetan Art. “I read many books, compared history in traditional Tibet and modern Tibet, and then returned India and Nepal to interview with people.”

In early 2009, according to Rigdol’s narrative in the documentary, his father was diagnosed with cancer. Daily visits to the hospital and talks between this father and son enabled them to share a deep and unfulfilled sense of belonging to their homeland. His father eventually passed away in New York, without realizing his greatest wish to return home. Rigdol then decided to help realize this wish of whether his father or almost all Tibetan refugees, in the form of art. Then, the Our Land, Our People project was launched.

Rigdol was invited by Rossi & Rossi, a London-based international gallery to the Bringing Tibet Home screening on 7th this month, during his first visit to Hong Kong. “We went to an art conference at Denver years ago, where Rigdol graduated. He made a presentation on Tibetan Art that time and drew our attention, that was the beginning of our connection,” said gallery director Corey Andrew Barr, “He staged two exhibitions in London before.”

Rigdol’s latest exhibition Change Is the Eternal Law staging at Rossi & Rissi’s Hong Kong branch.

Rigdol’s latest exhibition Change Is the Eternal Law is now staging at Rossi & Rossi’s Hong Kong branch at South Island Culture District from 19th September to 24th October, during which he leads visitors to evaluate his work and Tibetan Art every day. “Everything changes, it is the eternal truth. Why not be positive with changes? ”He explained his topic to visitors.

After years of research on Tibet history and art, Rigdol understands art in deeper sense and tries to re-interpret Tibet Buddha and Tibetan philosophy in his work. “I find the traditional Tibetan art a philosophical image, explaining what Buddha is trying to say, ”said Rigdol, “what can I do? I can use the same logic and image to talk about what is really happening in current Tibet.”

Rigdol expresses his idea of dialog in recent works showing modern Tibet’s looks, including protests to defend autonomy, endangered Tibetan culture, refugee issues and China-Tibet conflicts. In one of his photography piece, he stood on New York coastline facing the direction of Tibet, with a drawn Tibet map, written with the year of major protests in modern Tibet on his naked back.

Tenzing Rigdol leading a guide tour in his exhibition.

“Misinformation makes mistrust, mistrust makes a monolog,” he said, “to deal with the conflicts and heal the relationship between whether China and Tibet, Israel and Palestine, Terrorism and non-violence, or heterosexual and homosexual, dialog is important. With a better understanding of each other, the solution can then start.”

“I really want to go back to Tibet,” after visiting many countries worldwide, he added, “but I can’t.”

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