Roots and Routes: Montages of Exile
Description by Sarvpriya
The word ‘Resistance’ usually conjures an idea of open collective rebellion. In our private lives, not allowing ourselves to be dominated by a negative external force, not succumbing to a power whose goal is to reshape us against our will, are acts of resistance too. These individual daily incremental acts of resistance may as well be silent, but are effective nonetheless. Through camera, a visual artist, encodes their ideological conception of the world into an image. For photographer and activist, Tenzin Dolker, a life lived to the best of abilities in any given circumstance, is resistance. “It is important for me to have a wider narration of resistance,” she says.
Photography is without a doubt highly subjective, much like any other form of art. Having said that, it’s hard to miss the celebratory tone in Tenzin Dolker’s photo collection Here in Exile. The model adorning vibrant traditional Tibetan attire and jewellery is shot against the everydayness of Indian streets. A sense of overpowering nostalgia is evident in her pictures, but at the same time they speak of adaptation. “We are enveloped by the Indian culture, we consume a lot more Indian food, we are surrounded by Bollywood music and movies…..in a way we have adapted to this culture. But at the same time, growing up we were often told, ‘we’d go back home someday.’ We were always told stories of home, and home is very much alive in our collective imagination. Here in Exile was coming to terms with the idea that perhaps this is home now.” Where the homecoming is delayed or rendered impossible, it is the collective acts of care and remembering that provides a sense of familiarity and belongingness.
Here in Exile.
Gaining control on visual discourses and creating a visual culture scholarship that represents a culture in an ideal way is important for marginalized groups. The stereotypical representations of refugees and people in exile that produce spectacles for privileged viewing is part of dominant cultural control. Here in Exile was created by a team of Tibetan artists with a vision of representing Tibetan culture in all its grace, beauty, and grandiose. Tenzin manages to normalize Tibetan existence in an Indian cultural landscape without exotifying it. In the picture below, model Tenzin Chemi, is right at the centre of the image, but not in focus, almost blurring the lines of demarcation between ‘us’ and ‘them.’
Here in Exile.
Tenzin’s serious foray into photography only began once she moved to New Orleans in the US. She began with taking self-portraits. “I had to struggle to make ends meet after I moved here. Taking my own pictures was simply a cheaper creative outlet, I didn’t have to spend on paying a model.” The pandemic also forced her to turn the camera inward and capture herself in a new confined world.
Tenzin Dolker’s self portrait below seems as if she photographs what she experiences, and experiences what she photographs. The picture, almost cathartic in its appeal, is of an extant valley floor and has a masked Tenzin resting her arms on a tree stump. The tree stumps, she shares, looked as if, were brought down to the valley floor with the flow of the river at some point. It is at this point of junction and disjunction, she represents a certain rootlessness through this picture.
Where is my root?
Most of her outdoor self-portraits are set against arid landscapes with parched trees, broad horizons of skies, hills and canyons. The theme is so recurrent, I am forced to ask her. Tenzin demystifies it for me, “I like to travel and whenever I see an interesting place I stop and take pictures.” Why masks? “I carry a set of masks with me at all times just in case I come across an interesting landscape.” Masks are integral to Tibetan culture, for instance, the Cham Dance is a vibrant masked and costumed dance ritual performed by monks impersonating the deities to ward off evil spirits. But her Tibetan heritage is not the only reason for her to be using masks. It is the idea of revealing only so much that appeals to her as an artist. “The pictures reveal, and the masks conceal.” In the picture below, a masked Tenzin is perched atop a mesh of roots.
Tenzin’s work reflects a complexity that mirrors her life in exile. There is a simultaneous jubilation “we’re here now, in all our glory” and a lingering emotional connect with the imagined homeland. There is resilience, adaptation, even a sense of personal and collective achievement in her work. Life in exile presents a duality that has the capacity for expansion into multitudes. While the ‘voyage’ from a society where Tibetans were unable to exercise their political rights brings with it newer possibilities, there is also a sense of anxiety about losing hold over traditions, stories, language, and artistic expressions. Through photography, art, activism and remembrance, Tenzin makes ‘imagined’ sojourns to the homeland. Every exile is a different, personal experience. Keeping a compromised homeland’s memory alive, remembering, imagining, revering traditions are all acts of resistance.
Tenzin Dolker was raised in a Tibetan refugee camp in South India. As a freelance photographer she is interested in documenting different cultures across the globe, the streets, and spaces of everyday lives. She also acted in a film, The Sweet Requiem, where she played the role of a Tibetan exile, living in a North Delhi locality. She also co-founded Dharamshala Dance Arts where she managed the day-to-day activities of the centre and taught Bollywood dance and yoga. She is a vocal advocate and activist in the Tibetan Freedom Movement. She has a couple of ongoing projects - one of them is ‘Tibet's Forgotten Soldier’ that revisits the Establishment 22.