How do you imagine Tibet? Your mind probably conjures up images of mountains and blue skies, a peaceful and spiritual place, with probably very few signs of human life. The Tibet Autonomous Region lies in the southwest of China and is the country’s least densely populated area; it is also the highest region on earth. In a new exhibition that comments on contemporary Tibet and Tibetan identity, Nyema Droma skews the western stereotypes of Tibet and its people.
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford – an archaeological and anthropological museum, which is famed for its ethnographic collection, which contains everything from shrunken heads to totem poles – is home to more than 5,000 photographs taken by British visitors to Tibet in the beginning of the twentieth century. It also houses many studies of Tibetans that have been categorized as “ethnic” photographs, a type of photography that originated in the nineteenth century as a mode of anthropological work. Droma’s images at Pitt Rivers were made in response to these objects, particularly a set of glass portraits that portray Tibetans living in Lhasa – the administrative capital of Tibet – in the 1920s. Her reactionary double portraits depict young Tibetans from the Tibetan-speaking areas of China, as well as those living in Europe, documenting what they share as global citizens and consumers of popular culture. Alongside one “globalized” portrait, in which the sitter is shown as a citizen of the world – whether this be through the clothes they are wearing, or the objects they are photographed with – is another portrait, where the subject is dressed in traditional costume, positioning himself or herself firmly as Tibetan. Titled Performing Tibetan Identities, the images also ask us to question to what extent our presentation of our identity is a performance, and how much of that performed identity is an act to satisfy others and their stereotypes.
Perhaps the most striking of all the pairings are the images of Droma herself. In one image she positions herself in front of an emerald green piece of fabric, sitting relaxed in front of the camera. She is slightly hunched over, with one leg propped up. Her clothing looks as though it may have been influenced by her culture, but the tattoos that are on show are not what we might tend to expect to see on a stereotypical Tibetan woman. Attached to this image, a second monochrome photograph depicts Droma as a man. What links the two photographs together is the fact that Droma is holding a camera in both of them. This second black and white photograph shows Drama dressed in Tibetan clothing, with traditional accessories. The contrast between the two photographs is heightened in the way that Droma has emasculated herself and, I can’t help but ask, has she done so because of ideas surrounding women and work in Tibetan culture? Whether it is intentional or not, the photographs in which the sitters are clothed in traditional costumes seem as though they depict a time that now might be lost due to the changes that are made within a society due to modernity and globalization. That said, the images also comment on the fluidity of identity formation and how easily it can be altered and reinterpreted through fashion.
Other pairings include photographs of Kesang Ball and Tenzin Nyendak. In her “daily” wear, Ball is shown all in red clutching a small and intricately painted skull, not dissimilar from a Mexican sugar skull. In her corresponding image, she is photographed sitting proudly, completely dressed in brightly coloured Tibetan costume. Nearby, the images of Tenzin Nyendak comment on how it is not only clothes that are a signifier of identity, but also food. A chef, Nyendak smiles as he rests a plate of lobster on his fingers in the white uniform worn by cooks across the globe. In the second photograph, he again dishes up a plate of food for the camera. This time however, a Tibetan uniform has replaced his chef’s whites, and his lobster has morphed into a distinctly Asian looking dish.
Droma’s images are the result of a critical interaction with the representation of Tibet and Tibetan people in British museums, with the desire to disrupt the stereotyping of Tibetans by non-Tibetan photographers. Technically, the images are striking, not just for the subject matter, but also for the way in which they have been photographed. Droma studied at the London College of Fashion and her photographs are brightly coloured in high definition. Photographed against a backdrop of a single piece of fabric, in terms of form, the images are both simple and arresting, resulting in striking and through-provoking images.
As well as the photographs, the Pitt Rivers has also displayed filmed interviews with the sitters in the images, which include responses to questions about belonging and identity. The photographs themselves are hung as banners in the heart of the museum to emulate the way in which prayer flags are erected at Buddhist sites across the world. Displayed amongst the museum’s collection, the installation acts as a comment on ethnographic museums and also acknowledges the modernity of contemporary Tibetan culture, subverting western stereotypes.
Droma’s images provide insights into how traditional cultural heritage blends with Tibetan society’s transition through modernity and its progression into post-modernity. Displayed within a historic ethnographic museum, the portraits comment on typecast ideas about a culture and people that is just as innovative, modern and contemporary as it is traditional.
Nyema Droma: Performing Tibetan Identities is on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, South Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PP until 30th May 2019