Archive: Issue No. 55, March 2002

Go to the current edition for SA art News, Reviews & Listings.

Damaged bronze Buddha

Unknown photographer
Damaged bronze Buddha

China versus Tibet at the NSA
by Virginia MacKenny

A Tibetan photographic exhibition at the NSA Gallery in Durban, documenting the destruction of cultural artefacts in Tibet by Chinese forces, has aroused the ire of Chinese government representatives in this country.

On Monday this week, the day before the opening of 'The Truth About Tibet', the NSA received a letter and visit from the Chinese Consul in Durban, Zhu Zhanchao, requesting that they not host the show. In a letter to the NSA, dated February 21, Wang Xiusheng, Vice-Consul to the People's Republic of China in Durban, stated that the exhibition "distorts the facts" and "is not in line with the smooth development trend of friendly relationship between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of South Africa".

In a more hard-hitting letter to Professor G Ndabadaba, the Minister of Education and Culture in KwaZulu-Natal, the Consulate asserts that the situation is a "serious politcal [sic] matter" and that the exhibition "maliciously vilifies the Chinese government". It goes on to claim Tibet as an "inalienable part of Chinese territory", stating that since "democratic reform" in 1940 the "Tibetan people's living standards have been greatly improved". The letter also holds that the Tibetans' "legal rights, religious beliefs and culture are respected". The letter called on the minister to use his influence to "take timely and effective measures to stop the exhibition".

While the Chinese response might be viewed merely as the machinery of state rolling into action, more worrying is the supportive stance of Prof Ndabadaba. Assigned by Ndabadaba to sort out the problem, Dr B Khanyile, Director of Education and Culture in KZN, called a meeting with NSA president Jane du Rand and requested that the exhibition be dropped. While not committing himself to paper, he was on the phone fast when an article appeared in the Natal Mercury on February 26 indicating the NSA's intention to continue with the exhibition. He reiterated to the NSA that the exhibition should not be held.

It would seem that both the Chinese Consulate's and the KZN Department of Education and Culture's move to suppress the exhibition and its contents however may well have backfired. The NSA has no intention of complying with the "request", asserting its right to choose what exhibitions it puts on and calling on the South African Constitution's provision for freedom of speech to back its stance.

Given this country's unfortunate history of severe censorship during the apartheid years, it seems strange that those in charge of our education and culture should be so willing to bow to the request of another country, albeit one with which we have trade links, and forfeit so easily what has been so hard won.