Han Chinese painter’s latest collection finds inspiration in Tibetan self-immolators


Stacked up in Liu Yi’s studio, dozens of China’s most sensitive subjects stare out from thick black-and-white oil paintings, from victims of Tiananmen Square to Tibetans who have set themselves on fire.

Liu, 50, is a rare example of a member of China’s Han ethnic majority taking up the Tibetan cause — a project that has finally brought the authorities to his door.

More than 100 Tibetans have set themselves alight, around 90 of them fatally, to protest against what many call Beijing’s oppressive rule, but most Han Chinese accept the government’s stance that it has brought development and is combating tragic acts of violence.

“What they want is simply freedom of religion, of faith, and respect,” Liu said of his images in a spare brick-walled studio at his home in an artists’ community on the eastern outskirts of Beijing. “One goal is to commemorate them. Another is to let more people understand the truth in Tibet through these paintings, because nowadays, especially in China, people simply don’t know what is happening.”

He was provided with photos of his 40 subjects by a Tibetan writer but treats them as though he knew them personally, pointing out the first immolator, the youngest and the first woman. “This was a mother with four children. . . . This one had a 1-year-old child,” he said, rushing between the portraits.

Over the past 15 years, growing numbers of Han Chinese have embraced Tibetan Buddhism — including Liu — but have not backed the region’s political demands, Columbia University Tibet expert Robbie Barnett said. Artists have drawn inspiration from Tibetan landscapes and devotees have even traveled to India to hear from the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing denounces as a separatist encouraging immolations.

But the spiritual interest “seems not to affect political positions, certainly not openly,” Barnett said. “For an ethnic Chinese artist to take up this project publicly is very unusual and high-risk, and I can’t think of a precedent.”

China has gone on the offensive to prevent immolations — which the U.N. and overseas rights groups blame on Beijing’s repressive tactics — by jailing those accused of inciting and abetting the acts.

Han Chinese make up 91 percent of China’s population. Barry Sautman, an expert on China’s ethnic politics, said that while Han Chinese may empathize with Tibetans and appreciate their culture, they also tend to trust the government on security matters.

The majority thinking runs along the lines of: “The government is trying to do something for the Tibetans; on the other hand, the Dalai Lama is trying to get them to commit suicide,” said Sautman, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Liu hopes to spread awareness of the Tibetan perspective through his latest collection, even though he knows it is unlikely to ever go on public display in China — just like his previous series commemorating prominent protesters. Those included victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and well-known dissidents whom he calls “China’s conscience.”

One of his works, a 4.5-meter-long mural using photographs of children and propped up by rubble from the 8.0-magnitude Sichuan earthquake in 2008, when many schools were leveled but other buildings survived intact, prompted angry accusations of corruption until discussion of the topic was suppressed by the Chinese government.

Tibetan themes have attracted Liu since he began traveling to the region in the 1980s. He has painted countless Tibetan Buddhist images and many portraits of the Dalai Lama.

After his immolation paintings began drawing attention, he said, the authorities visited him three times in 10 days and tried to confiscate his work. But he managed to dissuade them and is preparing to start his next batch of portraits — this time on larger canvases.

“Unless they lock me up in prison, as long as I am free, then for sure I will keep painting,” Liu said. “I am definitely not afraid. Who am I compared to those self-immolators?”