Tibet: Treasures STOLEN from the Roof of the World

Tibet: Treasures STOLEN From The Roof of The World

Tactical Intervention, performed by “The Lone Llama” in collaboration with Tibetan Youth Congress, 2005.

Censorship-for-Profit at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco: In the wake of the Sansei Geisha intervention (2004), a Museum department manager informed me that the institution's banner exhibition the following summer would involve yet another problematic act of cultural appropriation.

In order to present TIBET: TREASURES FROM THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, museum management reportedly agreed to demands from the Chinese government to censor the entire historical and political context that enabled China to market a show comprised of treasures from the Potala Palace that rightfully belonged to the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet.

The traveling show has been met with protests throughout its tour, so the museum was aware of the potential for controversy well in advance of the show's arrival in San Francisco.

Where were the ads?

In marked contrast to the Geisha exhibition, there was virtually no advance advertising: none of the billboards, posters or glossy brochures that an artist of conscience might appropriate in the name of social justice, despite the show's status as banner exhibition for the peak summer season.

Due to the absence of promotional imagery, an anonymyous guerrilla artist, known only as “The Lone Llama ”, was left to work with only a tiny icon that appeared on the $20,000/table VIP gala invitation [pdf] found on the internet (shown at left), which led to the image at upper right.

Developed in collaboration with Tibetan Youth Congress, the resulting graphic was first deployed at a protest demonstration outside of the black-tie gala. As shown in the photos above, some of the museum patrons were receptive to the protestors and our flyer as they walked the red carpet.

Flags not People

Other patrons, however, refused to engage with the Tibetans at all. Numerous guests were seen pulling up to the red carpet in their luxury automobiles, completely avoiding any interaction with the Tibetan people, and proceeding up the steps to sign the registration form to have their photos taken by an official event photographer in front of Tibetan prayer flags. Smiles for the camera, not for the people.

Guerrilla Media Access

In addition to direct actions by the activists, the graphic was employed by The Lone Llama in a separate e-mail campaign directed at arts professionals and the media. By removing it from the rhetoric of protest demonstration and instead emphasizing the visual, the Llama succeeded at creating access to the media through guerrilla art. It created multiple opportunities for dialogue on listener-sponsored KPFA/Pacifica radio, with room for both activists and museum personnel to express their viewpoints, thus informing the listening public of the issues at stake in a larger struggle over what the Dalai Lama himself has referred to as "cultural genocide".

[Note: As of 2010, six years and counting, the protests of this show continued unabated internationally.]


Carstensen, Jeanne. "Hard to Have Compassion for Tibet Exhibit", SFGate, August 12, 2005.
Tsering, Lisa. "Activists Blast SF Museum's Exhibit of Tibetan Art", Pacific News Service, June 8, 2005.
Yi, Daniel. "Tibetan Exhibit Is More Political Artifice Than Art, Protesters Say", Los Angeles Times, February, 22, 2004.
Amateau, Albert. "Chinese takeover of Tibet protested at art opening", The Villager, Vol. 74, No. 23, March 2-8, 2005, NY.
Flanagan, Sue Morrow. "Treasures in Cultural Crossfire", Financial Times (London), April 4, 2005.
Patel, Vibhuti. "Himalayan Controversy", Newsweek International, March 14, 2005.
"Tibet supporters in Japan have delivered six hundred petitions to the Ueno Royal Museum", IAATE, Dec. 31, 2009.
"Tibetans protest exhibit of 'laundered' treasures" in Taiwan, The China Post, August 16, 2010.
Latulippe, Hugo and François Prévost. What Remains of Us, documentary film, 77 min., Nomadik Films, National Film Board of Canada (2004).

Organizations involved in Protest

San Francisco Regional Tibetan Youth Congress
Tibetan Association of Northern California
World Council of Tibetans for an Independent Tibet
Tibet Justice Center
Bay Area Friends of Tibet

Creative Commons License