An art gallery in Macau has cancelled a Tibetan artist’s live-painting performance at an opening after receiving pressure from government officials.

Tibetan-born artist Tashi Norbu was scheduled to do a live-painting performance at Lilau Square on Sunday evening as part of the opening of iAOHiN Amber Gallery. But before he traveled to Macau from Hong Kong, he was contacted by the gallery and advised not to enter Macau because it was “too risky.”

A source in the local art industry familiar with the matter told HKFP that the gallery received pressure from government officials. The China Liaison Office did not want the artist to go to Macau for the event, they said. The gallery said in a press release on Saturday that Tashi Norbu was “refused entry to Macau and left in limbo in Hong Kong.”

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Tashi Norbu with his sculpture in Grand Park, Chicago. Photo: Tashi Norbu.

iAOHiN Gallery received over MOP 1 million (HK$970,870) last year in a subsidy from the government’s Cultural Industries Fund. The source said its funding could be threatened if the gallery went ahead with Tashi Norbu’s event, as his artworks may be regarded as controversial by the Chinese government. Government officials were also scheduled to attend the event, they said.

After he spoke to the gallery, Tashi Norbu said he became afraid and decided to leave Hong Kong as soon as possible. He did not attempt to cross the border to Macau.

The artist describes his art as classical Tibetan images with a modern twist. Buddhist images are frequently depicted by the Netherlands-based painter. He has also painted spiritual scenes with the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile, and featured the yellow umbrella – a symbol of Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy protests – in some of his work. He said he was very disappointed by the decision by Macau officials, saying that he does not take part in activism at all.

“I was very sad, because I am very much focused on my art, and focused on showing the artistic culture of my country,” he told HKFP after landing in Delhi, India. “In my art there’s no political issues.”

“I don’t want to show any activism in my art, ” he added.

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Tashi Norbu at a live-painting event in Toronto. Photo: Tashi Norbu.

He said that was planning to paint a fire rooster at the event, as it was just before Losar, the Tibetan new year. This year marks the year of the fire rooster. The rooster is a zodiac symbol shared by Chinese and Tibetan cultures.

“On that day, I was told I cannot paint even [my] Fire Rooster by the Macau government officials because Rooster looks like the map of China and I may not paint that,” he said.

He said that he only wants to continue doing his work as an artist, and that he hopes to come back to Hong Kong and Macau. He also hopes to be able to put on a show in Beijing as a Tibetan artist. He said that live-painting shows can connect participants as brothers and sisters.

“All these beautiful moments, if I cannot do this, it’s suffocating, you know?”

“When I try to make art in the purest form, it is just being myself, being so honest, and the art that comes from my heart. What can I do? I cannot be not honest about myself. How can somebody say: you’re being honest, and that’s wrong?”

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Tashi Norbu. Right: Urban Buddha in Grand Park, Chicago. Photo: Tashi Norbu.

“How can we work on visual conversation[s] and dialogue this way?”

The artwork he shipped to Macau was put in storage, and he was not able to show any of it, he said.

“We thought there would be a great opportunity to show this talented artist to Macau’s public,” the iAOHiN Gallery’s curator, Simon Lam, said in the gallery’s press release. “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.”

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“What Macau has denied us here is the ability to promote art,” Lam added. “China is engaging with the world economically and with that is the expectation we can engage with China culturally. It’s a decision that I think does not make sense. All I can express is my profound disappointment and my concern for him, and I also want to ensure that when the event gets under way today, I will be doing what I can to get his views out there to mark what happened and to honor him.”

Tashi Norbu was detained for an hour while leaving and entering Macau last year, the art gallery’s press release said. He visited in April for the gallery’s “Tibet Revealed” exhibit, which showcased “provocative works of exiled Tibetan painters alongside a select group of traditional Tibetan scroll paintings.”

The gallery told HKFP that the Reminiscent Evening at Lilau event was very successful. They replaced Tashi Norbu with local artist Leo Yuen.

Update 08/03: The Macau Public Security Police Force said in response to questions from HKFP: “the Macau SAR welcomes anyone to visit for tourism, seeing family or for commercial activities or cultural exchange,” adding that it makes decisions to allow or refuse entry according to the law, and does not comment on individual situations. The Cultural Affairs Bureau declined to comment, saying it only learned about the incident through the media. 

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.