Tenzing Rigdol, a Tibetan contemporary artist, transported 20,000 kilograms of Tibetan soil to Dharamsala, India, for Our Land, Our People, a site-specific installation piece that opened in October 2011. Art Radar takes a look at this emotionally charged work of art.

Tenzing Rigdol sitting atop the soil to be transported. Image courtesy Rossi & Rossi and the artist.

Tenzing’s motivation

Tenzing Rigdol was born in 1982 in Katmandu, Nepal, to a Tibetan refugee family. After a few years in India, he and his family moved to the United States. In September 2008, his father Norbu Wangdu passed away in New York. Motivated by his father’s unfulfilled wish to visit Tibet once more, Rigdol thought up Our Land, Our People. With no political implications and with the simple intention of simulating the experience of their homeland, he hauled thousands of kilos of land to the largest Tibetan refugee community in Dharamsala, India. Although The Tibet Post quotes a press release by Face of Tibet as mentioning a “dangerous journey taken to transport the soil, which encompasses the borders of many countries and their numerous checkpoints”, questions about how the soil was transported will ultimately be answered in a documentary that the artist is planning to release soon.

Sketches of the installation. Image courtesy Rossi & Rossi.

Tenzing Rigdol, 'Our Land, Our People', 2011, site-specific installation, 43 x 43 ft. Image courtesy Rossi & Rossi and Bhuchung D. Sonam.

Installation and inauguration

After the arduous stages of planning and transportation, the soil for Our Land, Our People was successfully delivered and installed on a basketball court at Tibetan Children’s Village School in Dharamsala. A Tibetan flag and a microphone were mounted on top of the pile. There, viewers were invited to express their feelings and were even encouraged to “bring home” souvenirs of their homeland.

On the day of the installation’s inauguration, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, gave a speech through which he expressed immense gratitude for Rigdol’s gesture, as reported by ArtAsiaPacific.

It has been the dream of many Tibetans to return to Tibet and set foot on Tibet’s soil. Many have passed away with that wish unfulfilled. Today, I am stepping on this soil as a gesture of our struggle to reunite with our brothers and sisters in Tibet.

Monks during the ceremony. Image credit: Associated Press.

Emotional response

The three-day public installation struck an emotional chord with Tibetans of all ages. Rigdol uprooted land for those who themselves had been uprooted in exile and provided them with a sense of home in a foreign place. Feelings of overwhelming nostalgia filled the elder generation who have been refugees for more than five decades. Some knelt down to kiss the land, while others ingested the soil as a form of uniting with their native land. The younger generation stood in awe, feeling a strange and deep affinity for the home they never knew.

As accounted by the Associated Press, Tenzin Lhawang, a school librarian born in India, said,

I cannot describe my emotions as I touched the soil. I suddenly became emotional when I saw others walking on it and felt connected to a land I have never seen.

As part of the ceremony, the Dalai Lama blessed a tray of soil and on it, wrote the word “Tibet” in Tibetan.

Tenzing Rigdol and the Dalai Lama. Image credit: Associated Press.

The Tibetan diaspora

The Tibetan diaspora, or the movement of communities outside of their homeland, have been felt in a number of major upsurges since the late Fifties. In the period of a year following the 1959 Tibetan uprising, around 80,000 Tibetans followed the path of the fourteenth Dalai Lama into exile. After months of arduous travelling across the Himalayas, they finally re-established themselves in India. Faced with increasing political repression after the Chinese government initiated trade and tourism reforms in the region in the Eighties and driven by further unrest in 2008, families, monks and political activists have built new homes in places like India, Europe and America. In a 2009 census, an estimated 128,000 Tibetans are already residing outside of Tibet.


Related Topics: Tibetan artists, installation art, art and the community, art in India

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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