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|Volume 10 |Issue 18 | May 13, 2011 ||
Memories Etched in Ink
"The colour of soy sauce," says Tibetan-born artist Huang Jialin when he is asked to pick one hue to describe the playground of his youth - the 1,300-year-old Barkhor Street in Lhasa, capital of Tibet autonomous region. Huang, 45, trawled its length as a petty thief and odd-jobs man in his teenage years, before he began knocking on doors to measure every house on the street.
In 1996, he was tasked with making line sketches of Barkhor Street for an international non-profit organisation as part of its efforts to protect the ancient street.
The nearly kilometre-long Barkhor Street circles Jokhang Temple, a centre of worship for Tibetan Buddhists. For followers, who believe in reincarnation, the street that has no entrance or exit is a metaphor for life itself, sans beginning or end. As one of the most important prayer routes, tens of thousands of Tibetan Buddhists crowd to the street every day.
"The old houses on Barkhor Street were all painted in lime white back then," Huang says, recalling that every year people went onto the roofs and repainted their houses to welcome the gods. "The paint left dark stains, layers of it," Huang says.
An ethnic Han, Huang was born in Tibet's Nyingchi prefecture after his parents moved from Chongqing in the 1950s and is more fluent in Tibetan than in Mandarin.
If a painting class, the first of its kind in Tibet, hadn't started in 1982 and actively scouted students, he would probably have never picked up a brush, Huang says.
"I would have been in and out of jail three times by now," he jokes.
Although the class lasted only three months, Huang says he felt like a proper artist at the end of it. He put on clothes with paint stains and wandered around Barkhor Street, "just like an artist".
Being able to speak Tibetan helped Huang again when he was asked to copy the ancient wall paintings inside Jokhang Temple, four years later. His teachers were the source of a wealth of information not just about the paintings but also about Tibetan culture, and Huang soon struck up a good relationship with the monks.
Despite his love of painting, Huang found it was difficult to survive on it. By the mid-1990s, taxis began filling the streets of Lhasa, and Huang became one of the first taxi drivers in the city - without a license, he says.
"I didn't pen a single stroke for three years," Huang says. "Those three years were really painful."
Not until 1996 did Huang finally get paid to do what he liked. A friend found work for him at a German-based nonprofit organisation that works to protect ancient cities around the world.
Authorised by the local government, Huang was asked to measure every house on Barkhor Street - the height, width, thickness of the walls, type of construction and even the number of windows and pillars. He then transferred all this information into his ink sketches.
This assignment lasted three years.
After making 50 different paintings of Potala Palace, Huang finally came up with one in which the landmark is surrounded by flaming clouds that many said reminded them of the scene depicting the end of the world in the film 2012.
Despite earning acclaim and traveling far and wide, Huang says he always returns to Barkhor Street. He has a strong attachment to Jokhang Temple, where he spent so much time sunbathing on its roof or simply sitting against a pillar.
"I always tried to revive that spirit of Jokhang Temple," Huang says. "Especially when I felt frustrated, I just walked into those old houses, savored a pot of sweet milk tea."
But he no longer goes in there, he says. "Now you can't get into Jokhang Temple without buying a ticket," he says. "And if you sit there, you will find 10 tour guides telling 10 different versions of a story. They are loud and shameless. They make me want to hit them."
His disappointment finally made him move his art studio from Barkhor Street several years ago. "Modern civilisation is like a piece of film. It wraps around an older civilisation and gradually suffocates it," he says.
This article was first published in the China Daily. Reprinted with permission.
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