An Open Letter to Rubin Museum

Dear Rubin Museum,

A lot of us immigrants, refugees, and people of color have stories that are “interesting” and “exotic” to those who are not aware of our cultures and communities. This unearthed bed of treasures to Western eyes has historically been a source of profit and cultural gratification for white people and white institutions such as yourself.

Case in point: The annual block party that you held today in celebration of Nepali culture turned into a gross commodification of specific exotified elements of our community. This conversation goes beyond cultural appropriation. In the present instance, a largely white board and white institution— the Rubin Museum— controls the discussion and portrayal of our culture. A lot of different organizations from the community were invited to today’s block party to “showcase” themselves. The result being that these organizations came to this event expected to perform the Orientalist version of Nepali culture. We were forced to legitimize a set-up where white people placed tikas on their foreheads and took pictures wearing a namsa that is worn during special religious rituals. Those distressed by this careless display of ignorance and disrespect were members of the Nepali and Tibetan community. While strangers were busy sampling our clothes, our foods, our traditions, we felt powerless in this situation. The discussion of us wasn’t being led by us. We were props brought to legitimize this “cultural” event.

White woman in a monk's clothing holding an umbrella that is from 'I don't know where'
White woman wearing a namsa holding an umbrella from ‘I don’t know where.’

How devoid must you be of adequate Nepali and Tibetan representation that all levels of decision-making thought that it would be ok for visitors to don a garb with special significance to our community? To add on to the insult, visitors were invited to prop themselves with a crown decorated in skulls and an umbrella that is characteristic of Orientalist imagery of Asians. ASIANS ARE NOT A HOMOGENEOUS IDENTITY. Repeat: WE ARE NOT A HOMOGENEOUS IDENTITY. You cannot mishmosh different cultural aspects to configure a random, non-existent Asian community. This booth was also being run by New York Life which is an insurance company, and honestly, I’m running out of patience. Also, the workers at this event were all white and were not explaining the significance of these props, possibly because they had no knowledge. I really wish I was done. I really wish Orientalism would be done but it repeats in so many layers. In no instance is an orientalist representation of our culture an acceptable substitute for our presence. While there were organizations invited who were representative of the community and who provided educational and informational food for thought, these efforts were overshadowed by a looming display of Orientalism that was being reinforced by Rubin Museum.

We find ourselves constantly repeating this basic message: We are not a piece of cloth, we are not a delicacy, and we are not a “cultural” component to your event. We are political beings: intricate, heavy and real. We are not just a people who will perform our “traditional” culture for you. We are present in this modern day in New York where you are located. We are newly arrived immigrants surviving, and we are Nepali Americans thriving. Japanese Americans and other Asian Pacific Islander (API) folks protested an eerily similar event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Is this is a coincidence or systemic oppression?). Visitors were invited to take pictures in a uchikake to showcase the influence of Japanese culture in European art. This was an act of orientalism, fetishizing one aspect of Japanese culture, othering Japanese folks as persistent foreigners and simplifying the Japanese community so that they are easily palatable and consumed for white museum goers. What has changed really? The uchikake was switched for a namsa. Tibetans and Nepali’s were fetishized, othered and simplified.

You mentioned on your website that this event would celebrate Nepal’s culture while connecting it with the ideas of the region. There is a shocking absence of effort put into making our ideas and voices heard. From the absence of our representation on the top to the expectation of us to provide our services and our stories for free. The assumption made in spaces provided by white institutions for marginalized groups is that they provide the platform and therefore we should be grateful for this opportunity. The white savior is lending a hand that we should graciously accept. But really, why should we provide our services at no cost? We provide our time that could be spent working to better our community or spent with our family, but instead, we lend it to you to make your event successful.  If anything, you should be compensating us because earnings help our communities grow and thrive which is something that you support right?  The lack of compensation is a recurring example of white, dominant institutions profiting off of marginalized communities. Kat Blaque recently made a video commenting on this practice where Buzzfeed brings in (and steals) content and stories from trans and PoC individuals without adequate compensation and credit. Buzzfeed profits from the trending stories of marginalized folks without compensating the individuals who create the content.

A retort to this critique may include Tibetan and Nepali endorsement of Rubin museum as a resource and platform for our communities. We want to extend Blaque’s message to our communities eager to have their voices heard: “Do not doubt your power and your possibility. Don’t sacrifice your

Tibetan prayer flags

integrity for the vague promise of ‘exposure’. Exposure won’t pay your rent, feed you or pay your student loans back. ‘Exposure’ will, however ensure that places like [Rubin Museum] make the maximum profit from your story.”

If you truly aim to advocate for the Nepali and Tibetan community, then we want to see a town hall where our community members can discuss the role that white institutions like yourself have in perpetuating Orientalist imagery of ourselves and in controlling the conversations surrounding us. Provide a space for us to discuss our own issues. That is one way to respect us and to make sure that our ideas and voices are heard. MFA followed through, will you?

-Concerned and tired members of the Nepali and Tibetan community.

For those who would like this town hall to happen or to voice their concern, please send an e-mail to Rubin Museum at [email protected]. You can also start a conversation on facebook and twitter with @RubinMuseum and @TibetanFeminist.


Leave a Reply