Tibetan self-immolators inspire, put painter in the spotlight
By Carol Huang, AFPBEIJING -- Stacked up in Liu Yi's studio dozens of China's most sensitive subjects stare out from thick black-and-white oil paintings, from victims of Tiananmen Square to Tibetans who have set themselves on fire.
March 8, 2013, 1:05 pm TWN
Liu, 50, is a rare example of a member of China's Han ethnic majority taking up the Tibetan cause — a project that has finally brought the authorities to his door.
More than 100 Tibetans have set themselves alight, around 90 dying, to protest against what many call Beijing's oppressive rule, but most Han Chinese accept the government's stance that it has brought development and is combating tragic acts of violence.
“What they want is simply freedom of religion, of faith, and respect,” said Liu, in a spare brick-walled studio at his home in an artists' community in eastern Beijing.
“One goal is to commemorate them,” he said of his images. “Another is to let more people understand the truth in Tibet through these paintings, because nowadays, especially in China, people simply don't know what is happening.”
He is provided with earlier photographs by a Tibetan writer but treats his 40 subjects as though he knew them personally, pointing out the first immolator, the youngest, and the first woman.
“This was a mother with four children ... this one had a one-year-old child,” he said, rushing between the somber portraits.
Over the past 15 years growing numbers of Han Chinese have embraced Tibetan Buddhism — including Liu — but have not backed their political demands, says Columbia University Tibet expert Robbie Barnett.
Artists have drawn inspiration from Tibetan landscapes while devotees have even traveled to India to hear from the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing denounces as a separatist encouraging immolations.
But the spiritual interest “seems not to affect political positions, certainly not openly,” Barnett said in an email.
“For an ethnic Chinese artist to take up this project publicly is very unusual and high-risk, and I can't think of a precedent.”
China has invested heavily in Tibetan areas to raise living standards but also imposed controls such as monitoring monasteries and banning images of the Dalai Lama.