With these hands

Karen Ma

YOU'VE SEEN THEM before: eye-catching Buddhist thangka paintings jostling alongside the turquoise-inlaid jewellery and brightly coloured Tibetan carpets in flea markets and shops all over the world. On the surface, the Tibetan handcraft tradition appears to be alive and kicking. Only it isn't. Today, most of the crafts are made outside Tibet, with relatively little coming from the source.

With the steady exodus of Tibetans since the 1950s and the disruptive impact of the Cultural Revolution, true Tibetan art is increasingly difficult to come by. 'Today, about 80 per cent of Tibetan-style art items aren't made in Tibet, but in Nepal, India and inland China,' says textile crafts specialist Chris Buckley, the owner of Torana galleries in Beijing and Shanghai. Some traditional art forms are on the verge of extinction, with the passing of older Tibetan artisans.

To slow (if not reverse) this trend, the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund set up the Tibet Artisan Initiative (TAI) in Lhasa in 2002 to teach small communities of weavers and craftsmen to rediscover their roots. The scheme was also aimed at improving their living standards.

Three years on, a photo exhibition, From Our Living Hands: Tibetan Artisans and Their Creations, looks at how these artists have fared so far.

Taken by photographer Miranda Mimi Kuo, the colourful images are now on show at the Dropenling Handicraft Development Centre in Lhasa, before moving to Beijing and Shanghai in September.

The project, organised and sponsored by Buckley, features portraits of 30 artisans who work at home or in workshops. Each includes a story about the artisan and their crafts.

Beijing-based Kuo spent 14 days on the road with Buckley in March, travelling to several remote mountain villages off Shigatsu. Among those featured in the exhibition are silversmiths, textile weavers, guitar makers and drum painters. 'We hope to raise the profile of crafts within the local community and to increase the sales and standards of the artisan businesses,' Buckley says.

For Kuo, one of the most inspiring subjects she met was a 38-year-old weaver named Choedun. '[She] started her own weaving collective in her village and is a forward-thinker. She has vision and confidence and, at the same time, is incredibly generous and tender.'

Another focus of the show is the handful of weavers who are keeping the artistry of Wangden carpet-making alive. Originally produced only in Wangden, a remote river valley in the Tsang province of southern Tibet, these are colourful square meditation carpets traditionally used by monks in monasteries. Because they're designed for religious use, Wangden carpets were, and still are, made exclusively by men, part of a weaving tradition that's unique to Tibet.

In one of Kuo's photographs, Gorkye, a short, wrinkled man, stands alone against a barren landscape wearing an army cap with a rug in one hand. At 71, he's one of the oldest, most experienced Wangden carpet weavers alive, and a vital link to a tradition that almost became extinct a few years ago.

'Today, only about 20 people in the world know how to weave these carpets,' Buckley says. Without Gorkye and other older weavers training the younger ones, the designs and significance of the religious symbols might have been lost forever.

Wangden weaver Mingmar has been a deaf mute since the age of five. He communicates through a wide range of facial expressions and has exceptional weaving skills, which allow him to recreate designs by other artisans.

Mingmar is relatively new to the programme, having started working with TAI a couple of years ago.

'Disabled people often don't have a place in a poverty-stricken village,' Buckley says. 'But through TAI, Mingmar has been able to quickly elevate his status in the eyes of other villagers and become a respected person in society.'

Kuo also attempts to change some of the stereotypes associated with Tibetans through her images. Foreigners tend to think of Tibetans as either smiling monks or austere, weather-beaten nomads. 'In the photos, I try to break these stereotypes by showing that these artisans are engaging people with profound complexity and humanity just like other people,' Kuo says.

TAI emerged from a growing concern that money, business skills and design expertise weren't being transferred back to Tibet as a growing percentage of the Tibetan-style goods were being made outside the region. By bolstering the local community's know-how and financial underpinning, the scheme hopes to stem further erosion.

According to Kesang Tashi, a Tibetan-American dealer in rugs made in Tibet, one factor that's greatly hampered local artisans is the fact that it's a landlocked region and competition for Tibetan-style textiles is fierce. That means local craftsmen, who often live in remote villages, have to produce something special, learn their market well and use their traditional skills in new ways for their crafts to survive.

The Dropenling Handicraft Development Centre - which serves as a conduit between trained craftsmen, people such as Buckley who commission pieces and customers - was opened by TAI in 2003. It gives artisans a dedicated place to sell their creations. The centre includes several workshops, a training centre, and a gallery and shop that showcases handicrafts made in Tibet by locals.

Buckley says he'd spent a lot of time looking for good Tibetan carpets, but was often frustrated by the lack of reliable craftsmen until he met TAI project manager Matthew McGarvey 18 months ago. Buckley was particularly impressed by how the centre helped identify and develop designs for artisans that have attracted more customers. The photo project aims to further this goal.

From Our Living Hands will run until the end of August at the Dropenling Centre, which is in a renovated historic Tibetan courtyard in the heart of old Lhasa. Southwest Airlines will start a direct service between Hong Kong and Lhasa on July 21.

McGarvey, who's helping organise the exhibition, says six weavers from Panam County (480km west of Lhasa) will demonstrate different types of textile weaving, including Wangden carpets. The show will also include a presentation on the history of Tibetan weaving and about 70 textiles and craft items.

From Our Living Hands, Sep 10-25 (parallel shows), Torana Gallery, Beijing, inside the Kempinski Hotel; Torana Gallery, Shanghai, 339-15 Chang Le Lu