A gallery in Macau has cancelled a performance by a Tibetan painter after authorities in Beijing threatened to arrest and deport him if he tried to enter the Chinese-administered region, according to the artist.
Tashi Norbu, a Tibetan artist based in the Netherlands, was scheduled to hold a live-painting performance at Macau’s Lilau Square as part of the opening of the iAOHiN Amber Gallery on March 5, but was contacted in Hong Kong by a gallery official and told to leave the city for his own safety.
“A ranking Chinese military officer informed the gallery director that I was on a blacklist and my entry to Macau is forbidden,” Norbu told RFA’s Tibetan Service on Tuesday, a day after fleeing Hong Kong, where he had recently exhibited his work, for Dharamsala, India—the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.
“The Chinese official reasoned that whatever I display [at the gallery] will be against the Chinese government, so he warned that … if I go, then I would be [arrested and] deported.”
Norbu said the gallery director felt it was better to heed the warning because of his experience with “previous instances” in which artists had been targeted by Chinese authorities in Macau, a former Portuguese colony that was returned to China’s rule in 1999.
“The art gallery also advised me to leave [Hong Kong], because they could not bear responsibility if anything happened to me,” he said, adding that the conversation “really frightened me” and led him to purchase an airline ticket to India the same day.
Norbu describes his work as a modern take on traditional Tibetan themes and frequently includes images of the Buddha in the pieces.
He claims that his art is not political in nature, though he has painted scenes depicting exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama—who Beijing accuses of stoking tension in the Tibetan region—and yellow umbrellas—a symbol of Hong Kong’s 2014 democracy protests.
Norbu was briefly detained by authorities while entering and leaving Macau in April last year for a show of his work that received considerable media attention.
iAOHiN Amber Gallery asked him to perform at its March opening exhibition, which the artist said promised to be “significantly higher profile … as the organizers have invited dignitaries and ambassadors to the show.”
Officials at iAOHiN repeatedly cautioned Norbu that his work at the event would be scrutinized by Beijing and three months ago informed him that he would not be permitted to exhibit anything related to the Buddha.
“Additionally, I was told that I could not wear anything identifying me as a Tibetan [while performing],” he said.
“When I work I wear a white outfit to highlight the art, rather than to draw attention to my dress. But for the Chinese, this becomes something politically symbolic, as white represents peace and they see it as a statement [against Chinese rule in Tibet]. So I was not allowed to wear that.”
As the date for the exhibit drew closer, Norbu said iAOHiN greenlighted a theme of the fire rooster—a zodiac symbol for Losar, the Tibetan New Year, which is observed from Feb. 27 to March 1 this year.
“Two months ago, they informed me that [the fire rooster] is not related to politics and therefore should be ok,” he said.
“But [on Feb. 26] while I was in Hong Kong, they told me that the [shape of a] rooster resembles China’s map. So since I am a Tibetan, I couldn’t draw that.”
Hong Kong Free Press said in a report that iAOHiN received more than 1 million Macau Pataca (U.S. $125,000) last year in a subsidy from the government’s Cultural Industries Fund, which could be threatened if the gallery went ahead with Norbu’s event, citing a source in the Macau art industry.
In a press release, iAOHiN curator Simon Lam expressed disappointment that China’s authorities see the arts “as a threat … banning what is nothing else than pure art performance” and said he would do his best to ensure that the public was informed about Norbu’s ordeal.
Reported by Ngawang Chophel for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Dorjee Damdul. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.