On October the 26th 2011, exiled Tibetans set foot on Tibetan soil, not in Tibet but in India. Tibetan artist Tenzing Rigdol transported 20,000 kilograms of native Tibetan soil from Tibet to Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile and more than 10,000 Tibetan refugees.

The soil was spread out on a stage designed by the artist where the people were invited to walk and sit as well as express their feelings through a standing microphone. The design of the site-specific installation, titled “Our Land, Our People,” comes from the inspiration and interpretation of the Tibetan National flag and the tragic history of Tibet.

In March 2009, Rigdol’s father fell ill while living as a refugee in New York. His only desire, to visit Tibet just once before he died, went unfulfilled. It was in his father’s dying wish, exemplifying the exile Tibetans’ longing to return to their country, that Rigdol found the inspiration to pursue the project. Through Rigdol’s work, Tibetan refugees living in Dharamsala, who have been separated from their families and are forbidden from returning to their homeland, had the chance to step on Tibetan soil. For some, it was the first time in more than fifty years that they have walked on Tibetan soil; for many, born in exile, it will be the first time in their lives.

This groundbreaking installation enabled the displaced to ‘return’ home. Although Rigdol’s work examines the plight of the Tibetan people in exile, it also has wider resonance, exploring the notion of nostalgia, the idea of homeland and how art is intertwined with the political and the social. It also demonstrates the transgressive power of art as an act of defiance.

Far from home, Tibetan exiles set foot
on native soil

October 27 2011 Moni Basu, CNN

They lined up hundreds strong to touch the dirt. Some fell to their knees, clutching the gritty stuff as though it were a long-lost child. Others lifted it to their lips to savor a taste of the home they left behind decades ago.

Exiles — who face never returning to Tibet as long as it is under Chinese rule — stood on Tibetan soil this week, fulfilling a desire that has burned within since they fled westward across the Himalayas. Only, this week, they were able to do it in Dharamsala, the Indian hilltown that functions as the de facto capital of the refugee community.

The display was the work of New York artist Tenzing Rigdol, 29, who clandestinely trucked in sacks containing 22 tons of dirt from Tibet to Dharamsala to construct his installation. He did not want to disclose details of the soil’s journey, fearful of the repercussions of the act of smuggling. All he would say is that it was a “complicated process that took 17 months.”

Rigdol then spread the dirt over a stage the size of a basketball court and called it “Our Land, Our People.” He invited Tibetans to walk on his dirt, write on it or pick up a microphone to express themselves. He knew it could never be the same as actually returning to Tibet, but perhaps, he thought, it would spark a sliver of that feeling.He thought of his father on Wednesday when the installation opened and people lined up, many overwhelmed with emotion. The only wish his father had was to see Tibet one more time. But he fell ill in 2007 and died. A father’s unfulfilled wish drove his artist son to create something that would allow the displaced to be able to “return” home again. And others like him, who were born outside of Tibet, to finally feel native earth they have never had under their feet.

“There are so many like my father who wanted to return,” Rigdol said. “And many more who have never been to Tibet.” Tenzin Dorjee, 31, remembers receiving cell phone texts at 4:30 in the morning when his excited friend first came up with his idea. The message was so long that it got broken into three. “He was saying he had this idea to transport a large amount of soil from Tibet,” Dorjee said. “I was blown away. My first reaction was: how is that possible?” But then Dorjee began visualizing the project and how much of an impact it was sure to have on Tibetan exiles. “The implications,” he said, “seemed historic.”

Known as the “roof of the world,” Tibet is a remote Buddhist region governed by Communist China. Beijing claims its sovereignty over Tibet goes back centuries and views the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as a separatist. About 150,000 Tibetans live in exile, a majority of them in Dharamsala, according to their governing body. The Dalai Lama set up residence there after Chinese forces crushed a 1959 Tibetan uprising. The Dalai Lama summoned Rigdol to his residence after the opening of the installation Wednesday, Rigdol said. Rigdol carried with him some of the Tibetan dirt. Using his index finger, the Dalai Lama, wrote Tibet in the dirt and blessed the soil.

Meanwhile, monks in their flowing maroon and saffron robes queued up, as did parents holding babies. “It was very exciting,” said Tenzing Geche, 22, a monk who was a baby when his family left Tibet. He touched the dirt and felt a connection like no other. “I felt I was back in my own country,” he said.

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