May 6, 2013
“How do you translate “conservation” into Tibetan? The word doesn’t exist.”
For years, I’ve heard about the conservation work that Luigi Fieni has conducted in Mustang. Documentaries have been made – and countless articles published – about his groundbreaking restoration of Tibetan Buddhist murals dating back to the 15th century. I’ve followed Luigi’s work with more than casual interest. In the 1990’s, I served as artistic director for the painting of Tibetan murals in two newly constructed temples – one in Sarnath, India and one in the Catskills. But it wasn’t until last month that I met him at a party in Kathmandu. He’s currently stuck in the Valley, pending the Home Ministry’s signing off on his work-visa, a permit he has to attain before he can legally return north to Mustang. Regrettably, this has become an annual ritual: Luigi waiting for the Home Ministry to grant him a work-visa for a project that has been internationally hailed – for well over a decade.
In any case, Luigi’s interminable wait became my stroke of good fortune. A few days after our initial meeting the following interview ensued, conducted in Raju Bikram Shah’s Shangri-la Hotel garden.
DUNHAM: From Rome to Mustang. There’s a story here. Let’s begin with your childhood.
LUIGI FIENI: I came from Cisterna di Latina, a little town near the seaside, a half-hour drive from Rome. I started drawing when I was five actually. But following my parent’s advice, I studied science, so I never studied art. Instead, I studied aeronautical engineering, all the while drawing, just for myself, trying to refine my skill – painting as well. But after a couple of years of engineering I said, “OK, this sucks. This is not what I want to do.” So I quit university and entered a kind of psychological war with my parents and all my relatives, because I was giving up something that would give me a secure future. At least in Italy, there is this stereotype that doctors and engineers are respectable and going to be privy to the top-paying jobs, while artists…
But I quit school. And I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just started airbrush painting for myself and for – not companies, but – individuals who wanted their objects painted: trucks, surfboards, snowboards helmets, bikes – whatever I could do to make money. But I was still wondering what I was going to do when I “grew up”.
Anyway, through this work I realized that I was very good at copying styles. Because usually for this kind of work, the client would give me a photo from a magazine and they wanted an exact replica. So after a couple of years of this half-job-half-despair, I thought, “Well maybe this could be linked to some kind of conservation.” So I enrolled in the Conservation Institute in Rome and, all of sudden, life became easier.
Unlike when I was studying engineering, I comprehended the academic aspects of conservation immediately. And coupled with my drawing skills I became one of the top students in the school.
As it happened, just before my graduation, in 1999, there was this professor in the school who was just about to start a project in Mustang: Professor Rodolfo Lujan Lunsford. He used to be a conservator for UNESCO and many international organizations. He had worked in Cambodia, Ajanta in India, Burma, Mongolia – many renowned places. I was very lucky because the only year that the professor taught at my school was the year I graduated.
The professor was in contact with John Sanday Associates, an architecture and conservation company, here, in Kathmandu, run by John Sanday. Sanday got the funding from the American Himalaya Foundation for the project in Mustang. John and Rodolfo had worked together ten years before. John contacted Rodolfo about the Mustang project and that’s how it got off the ground. John told him to bring an assistant, Rodolfo selected me … and here we are. That’s how this became a reality. Super cool the way this whole thing interlocks.
Later, when I told this story to some of the monks in Mustang – it was quite sweet – they said, “Oh, you must be a reincarnation of one of the old painters.”
DUNHAM: It does seem karmic. When did you first go to Mustang?
FIENI: 1999. One week after graduation.
FIENI: Yeh, it all happened very quickly. I went from very low self-esteem to feeling like I had the dream job – all in a very short timespan. At that time, there was no Internet – no google earth search for me – so I went home and got some books to find out about Mustang and I thought, “Oh shit, that’s far away.”
I served as Rodolfo’s assistant for four years. Then in 2004, he left the project and I became in charge. And from 2004 forward, I have been leading the conservation in Mustang.
DUNHAM: Let’s talk about the actual coservation.
FIENI: The idea is restoring wall paintings from the 15th century, in Lo Manthang [the capital of Mustang]. The pilot project was Thubchen Monastery, built in 1472. Since our sponsor, the American Himalayan Foundation, wanted to have a development project, this plan required the training of a lot of the local people in Mustang. The idea was to take farmers from Lo Manthang and slowly transform them into restorers – to give them the knowledge and skills to take care of their own cultural heritage.
DUNHAM: Were there no local artists – thangka painters – living in Mustang?
DUNHAM: The tradition had been lost?
FIENI: That’s right.
DUNHAM: What were the conditions of the Thubchen murals in 1999?
FIENI: Oh, I still had hair at that time. I pulled them all out when I saw the poor condition of the murals. It was a disaster. Damaged wall paintings – OK, darkened by varnish, age, grime and butter-lamp smoke – but that was the least of our problems. That’s easy to fix. The real problems were with the structure of the building and the fact that the wall paintings were detaching from the walls. In many areas, the paint layer was flaking off. There was water leakage from the ceiling and rising dampness from the floor. So there were a lot of challenges. Whatever you studied in conservation textbooks – the case histories, the bad conditions analyzed – they were all there in Thubchen. Mold, biological attacks – whatever – it was all there.
DUNHAM: Describe what Mustang was like in 1999.
FIENI: Before I do that, I should describe how I got there in 1999. From the maps, you couldn’t tell how many roads went up there, or what kind of roads. I had no idea. From here, in Kathmandu, we took a plane to Pokhara. Then we took a plane to Jomsom.
DUNHAM: Oh god, I’m familiar with the flight from Pokhara to Jomsom. It is … memorable.
FIENI: Yes. I was 25 at the time and maybe at that age, you aren’t so aware of the risks. But flying in a twelve-seat plane up through the deepest gorge in the world [the Kali Gandhaki], where there is fierce wind almost 24-7, and the plane is just bouncing around all over the place –
DUNHAM: Like riding in the belly of a deranged hummingbird. There’s Nilgiri coming straight at you and Dhaulagiri on the left and Annapurna I on the right and –
FIENI: And even more stupefying, you don’t see the trees…you see the leaves of the trees. And you say, “Maybe we are flying a bit too close.” So for the twenty-minute flight, you are frozen.
Then you land in Jomsom and you ask, “OK, where’s the monastery?” And the guide answers, “Actually, we are going tomorrow and it’s three days on horseback.” Indiana Jones style.
DUNHAM: Italian cowboy heading up the mountain.
FIENI: Yeh, exactly. I had ridden horses a couple of times before but never on a mountain trail at 4000 meters and especially with the kind of tackle the locals used for riding. You see horses in Europe with nice saddles. In the first years especially, the Mustang saddles were made out of wood – just four small planks of wood, two carpets on top of that and your butt on it … for three days.
DUNHAM: How much equipment did you have to take with you?
FIENI: That was one of the biggest challenges at the beginning. You had to plan so carefully. The exact amount you needed – not too little but not too much, either, because we were going up with caravans of many horses and porters. Once you were up there, you couldn’t call the conservation shop and say, “I forgot something.” Even if you forgot something, you had to make do with what you had brought. No second chances. I learned a lot from that.
I’ve also been working in Italy – I split my year between Mustang and Italy. In Italy, if you don’t like your paintbrush, you just walk to the shop and buy another one. But in Mustang, you improvise all the time: “OK, see that guy over there with the beard? He hasn’t shaved. We’ll shave him and use some of his hair for a brush.” That’s the way it is in Mustang. Or when the paintings are detaching from the walls, you have some special conservation tools in Europe you can use just for propping. These things don’t exist in Mustang. And the walls are 8 meters high.
DUNHAM: Did you use bamboo scaffolding?
FIENI: No, we got wood from China. And at that time, there wasn’t yet a road from China. We had hundreds of porters carrying logs over the Himalaya from Tibet. Sounds crazy, but it was the easiest way to carry wood because from Jomsom or Pokhara it would have been too expensive.
We really had to be innovative on every level. Sometimes we used mattresses or plywood to prop things up. Here’s another example: We had to detach a wall painting from a wall. It was a relatively newer painting, but someone during the history of the monastery had built something on top, which forced us to use honeycomb panels [auxiliary support replacements]. In Italy, you just go buy the panels. Here, we had to build the large panels in Kathmandu and transport them all the way up to Mustang.
DUNHAM: What about the challenge of lighting the interior of the monastery? There are very few windows – if any – in Tibetan gompas.
FIENI: It was a big challenge. When you are studying conservation, you concentrate on the importance of replicating daylight to determine the exact colors of the painting. So we brought a couple of those special lights over from Italy, but it was difficult because of the generators available here in Nepal. They were quite unreliable. We needed a lot of power – 20,000 watts – so we had to use tractor-driven dynamos and, even if the Nepali generators were powerful enough, they were too heavy to transport to Mustang. So we purchased some from China – supposedly brand new generators. We started them up and after a couple of hours they broke down. And I thought, “Oh, shit, these are brand new.” So our guy took them apart. Well, on the outside, they were brand new but inside? I don’t know how old they were. These were the kind of unexpected problems we encountered but somehow we managed.
DUNHAM: Did the locals really understand what you were trying to do? Some of them must have found all the activity and equipment disturbing – especially in regard to their holy site.
FIENI: When we first arrived, we had all the working permits, the Department of Archeology approval – all that – but locals were like, “Who are you? What do you want to do? You want to touch our monasteries?" Even though they could see very little of the interior of the monastery because it was so dark inside – and it was practically not used at all – the locals felt attached to their temple and wanted to know, “What is it that you are doing that we can’t do ourselves? What does ‘conservation’ mean, anyway?”
How do you translate “conservation” into Tibetan? The word doesn’t exist.”
The conversation – or you could say the questioning -- actually started a couple of years before we arrived. The locals had been convinced that it would be OK to have us come up to the site. But once they saw us unpack syringes and drills, things like that, they became concerned.
FIENI: One of the operations used, when the wall painting is detaching, is that you knock on the wall; you understand, by the sound, if there is a void behind that wall. So you drill there and inject a special mortar. The locals interpreted this operation as, “You are piercing our gods! They are not images, they are our gods! They are going to be harmed, defiled! You cannot do that!”
So the Mustang community insisted on performing a ceremony of de-consecration. With a mirror, they captured the life or soul of each image in the monestary – transforming them from gods into mere drawings, lines and colors. Only after the ceremony were we allowed to try some small cleaning samples. And they were still very suspicious about our work.
DUNHAM: What about the king of Mustang? [Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, born in 1933. Officially, the monarchy ceased to exist on October 7, 2008, by order of the Government of Nepal. Nevertheless, many Mustang residents still regard Bista as king.] The king must have been supportive of your work, otherwise the project would have never taken off.
FIENI: Actually, the king was the guy who initiated the restoration.
DUNHAM: His approval was key.
FIENI: That helped, yet the community of Lo Manthang and local monks ran the monastery, so everyone had a say in the matter.
Anyway, after we managed this trial, this small rectangle of restoration – we cleaned a square meter – the king came to examine our work.
That square meter was pretty impressive: All of these amazing colors were shining back! After removing the varnish and dirt, the patch looked like it had been painted yesterday. The king was very impressed. He said, “Wow, you guys are such talented artists. How did you paint this?”
And we said, “No, we didn’t paint. We just removed the dirt. This is from the 15th century. Your ancestors did this.”
And that was the day that everything changed in Lo Manthang. After the locals realized that we were involved with cleaning only, they said, “OK, we need the help of these foreigners." And all the population of Mustang turned in our favor, and we were allowed to start working.
DUNHAM: Pigment: What pigments had been used by the artists in the 15th century?
FIENI: Actually, the most expensive ever used in history. In Mustang, we can make a parallel with what Michelangelo was using.
DUNHAM: The original Mustang artists and Michelangelo could have talked to each other and been on the same page.
FIENI: Exactly. It was more or less the same period – well, Michelangelo was a bit later but – and they were using the same minerals to make their pigment: malachite, azurite, lapis lazuli, cinnabar –
FIENI: Yeh, and all these semi-precious stones, which are very expensive –
DUNHAM: And very poisonous –
FIENI: Very poisonous, yes, all of them are from metal – from arsenium to mercury to copper, to…what else?
FIENI: Yes, lead for the orange. So all of those pigments were there in the most beautiful shapes and forms and shadings.
DUNHAM: And because they were real pigments, there was limited deterioration in their intensity.
FIENI: Exactly and they had been protected by varnish.
DUNHAM: What kind of varnish?
FIENI: We made some analysis and it was a mixture of oil and tree resin. It’s kind of common, at least in Europe – in Asia it’s less common to varnish, but in the monasteries I have worked on in the Himalaya, I have often found varnish. In some cases, it had been applied long after the painting was executed.
In the case of Mustang, the varnish was from the same period as when the paintings were executed. This was an important distinction to be made. If the varnish had been applied much later, the colors would have shown a certain aging. Or there would have been darkening from the smoke emitted from butter lamps, which was the only kind of illumination used in the temple. In the case of the paintings in Mustang, there was nothing between the pigment and the varnish.
All varnishes are transparent when applied, but with aging they turn brown, red, black – according to the nature of the varnish. And they practically hide the paintings. But when we removed the varnish, the colors just shone back. And because of the quality of the pigments, they were incredibly stable, especially in that dim light. They looked like they were painted yesterday.
DUNHAM: Let’s break down the colors for my readers. Malachite for the green –
FIENI: Yes. Azurite for light blue. Lapis Lazuli for the very dark blue. It was generally thought that lapis had not been used in Tibetan wall paintings. There was a legend surrounding the use of lapis but it wasn’t found in the old masterpieces from Ladakh, Gyantse, or wherever. But in Thubchen we found lapis lazuli. In fact, we found something that we had never seen before: The Mustang artists had mixed azurite and lapis lazuli together to create a medium blue. Super rare. For historians, this was a very exciting discovery.
DUNHAM: In the restoration process, did you use real pigment?
FIENI: No. In our conservation, we don’t work with pigments. When we are touching up, we use watercolors. Conservation teams from different countries have different philosophies about this. I come from the Italian school of thought that, maybe, in fifty or a hundred years, something better might come along. So that the next restorer that comes along in the future, they have to be able to remove whatever you added extra on the wall painting.
There is this concept of restorability, which is very strong in our Italian point of view.
You never reconstruct what has already been destroyed.
And I was convinced that this was the right path. But when we “finished” Thubchen monastery in 2004, the monks said, “What do you mean ‘you’re finished?'” You see, all the lower portions of the paintings had been destroyed by dampness, so we hadn’t worked on the lower areas. It was all missing and the monks simply could not comprehend that we considered our work completed.
DUNHAM: Another non-Western concept you must have encountered up there was that Tibetan practitioners envision the murals as the Pure Land. Cracks, missing areas, aberrations of any description are regarded as bad.
FIENI: Exactly, because Tibetan Buddhist practitioners are looking at real gods. They are not images. They are truly the gods. And they have been consecrated. But it took me many years to understand that concept. I resisted also because I was breaking the rules of what I had studied in Italy. It took time for me to be able to adapt what I had studied in Rome to the Tibetan way of seeing things. For the people of Mustang, re-painting the lower walls was extremely important. But for me it was all new. Reconstructing something so big? In Italy, they would chop off my hands. In Mustang, it was their number one requirement of restoration.
Anyway, I slowly began to understand their priorities. And I think that there should be a new theory of conservation adapted for countries in Asia, Africa, South America – places where the soul or religiosity is very strong. Whatever notions Western countries may have developed, when working on non-Western religious buildings, those notions should not be applied.
DUNHAM: I agree. At what point did you begin training the locals in Mustang to help with the restoration?
FIENI: From the beginning. All of them were farmers with no previous training. We didn’t even have time to test who were the most suitable to work with us. The project was created, in part, to distribute wealth homogenously throughout the village. Also, the external architecture: We employed 230 locals in carpentry, labor, etc. But there was no pre-selection. The rule was that one person from each family could get a job with us. When you were lucky, you had a very good employee. When you were unlucky, then you had to improvise a job for them that would benefit the project. 90% of them were illiterate – never touched a pen and yet we were giving them paintbrushes. It was an incredible challenge.
Also, there was the limitation of language – the language barrier. We had an interpreter, which was helpful, but luckily, in conservation, there is a lot of information that can be shared by miming. We were all Italians so [waving his hands] – miming: That’s our thing.
Little by little, one by one, we showed them how to fill up a syringe with mortar and inject it, or how to clean a surface, over and over, until they were confident in doing this. We began the learning process on empty walls. If mortar was spilled, no paintings were damaged. We had to avoid any mistakes occurring on 15th century paintings. But my point is that we were teaching them technique by mime, not language. And, over time, language was no longer an issue as we all kind of created a new language made up of Nepali, Tibetan, English and Italian.
Another challenge was the caste system. In Tibetan Buddhism, it shouldn’t exist. But in Mustang, there are three identifiable castes: the royal family, the middle class and the lower caste made up of inherited professions like blacksmiths and musicians. The latter live outside the city of Lo Manthang on the riverside.
DUNHAM: And you had the three castes were working side-by-side?
FIENI: Yes, but the problem wasn’t working side-by-side. The problem was when they worked on scaffolding. If a lower caste worker was on top of the scaffolding and a higher caste worker was below his feet, it always ended up in fights. So where people worked in relation to other workers had to be carefully planned to avoid this vertical placement issue.
DUNHAM: It’s now 2013. How close are you to completing the project?
FIENI: At Thubchen, the conservation part is finished. We worked on two major structures in Lo Mantang: Thubchen, which is a monastery and Jampa, which is a temple, with three stories and all the mandalas. We finished the conservation of Thubchen in 2004. In Jampa, we finished the conservation in 2009.
But then the locals started looking for money to complete all the paintings by themselves.
At that moment I got a bit worried: OK, they learned, but they still had limitations and still needed guidance, especially if they also wanted to do additional reconstruction. I sort of shut down all my Westerner ethics and said, “OK, I want to do it and I convinced the American Himalayan Foundation to accept this additional reconstruction program.
We went back to work on Thubchen in 2010. We began working on approximately 350 square meters of wall. And in some cases, we are using real pigments: lapis lazuli, azurite, malachite, cinnabar –
DUNHAM: 350 square meters is huge. Have you completed it?
FIENI: In theory, we should have completed by the end of this year. But we’ve been confronted with unforeseen problems. Rising dampness had returned to the walls. Mold stains. So we had to remove a lot of what we had reconstructed. We had to call in new architects because the original architectural company hadn’t finished the job correctly.
DUNHAM: What had the architectural firm failed to do?
FIENI: OK, on the lower sections of the walls there were no paintings so who cares? But rising dampness can go up very high, and that was what was happening – encroaching on work we had originally done. Luckily, the original 15th century painting was unharmed, just the work we had done in the last decade. Still, because of this, we won’t be able to finish the reconstruction this year.
DUNHAM: How many locals from Mustang will you be employing this year?
FIENI: Thirty-five. The team has shrunk a bit. Some passed away, some moved to the U.S. and Korea.
DUNHAM: But both structures have been re-consecrated? Are the local Buddhists worshipping inside?
FIENI: Yes, since 2004, when there was the first ceremony. The monks use the buildings for their most important events: the creation of the mandalas for the end of the summer, the religious dancing in May – the major ceremonies are being held again there since – I don’t know how many centuries.
DUNHAM: For interior lighting, are they still using yak butter lamps?
FIENI: Ah, the butter lamps. Originally, it was very difficult for them to understand a concept, which, for us, is very easy. When we told them that the butter lamp smoke darkened the paintings, they said, “Oh really? Never seen it.” So we dropped the subject but after three or four years of them using the butter lamps, I went back to confront them about the lamps.
There are special sponges called Wishab. They absorb the grime and soot – whatever is deposited on the surface and is not yet glued to the painting, which was the case of the smoke. So I took the monks and some local people inside and we did some cleaning with Wishabs and then I pointed out the difference. I said, “Look, this cleaned area is what the whole wall looked like four years ago. Now compare it to the part of the wall that hasn’t been cleaned.” They recognized the problem.
So they decided to build some rooms outside the monastery where worshipers who want to light a butter lamp are free to do so. Naturally, since the monastery is a religious space, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition demands that there are a couple of butter lamps to serve religious purposes. But compared to the 500 or 600 that had been burning four years before – cutting it down to two or three – has been a successful change, especially because it was the local’s idea to build the extra rooms outside. When the idea comes from the community, it’s 99% probable that everyone will follow the leader’s example. If a foreigner comes in and says, “Do this, do that,” they won’t give a shit.
DUNHAM: The interior – with just a couple of better lamps lighted – must be much dimmer now. The locals are OK with that?
FIENI: Yes, especially now, when everybody has a flashlight or battery-powered headlamp. If they really want to see the murals, they can use their flashlights. It also depends on the area of the interior. In Thubchen, there is a kind of skylight. If you go during the day, you can see the walls.
DUNHAM: Traditionally, temple skylights were just wide-open rectangles cut out of the roof, allowing snow and rain to come in. Is that the kind of skylight in Thubchen?
FIENI: When we first arrived, it was: The ceiling was open to the elements and direct sunlight flooded in. We had to make an adjustment. Now there is a flat ceiling over the opening, slightly elevated above the rest of the rooftop, with windows placed horizontally to prop up the top. The elements are now sealed out and there is no direct sunlight.
DUNHAM: You mentioned that, in some cases, you were using real pigment in Mustang. Do you start from scratch? Are you grinding your own pigment?
FIENI: Yes, because if you buy the pre-ground pigments, the costs are astronomical. So I trained my guys how to grind, how to prepare the pigments out of the stone.
DUNHAM: That’s straight out of the Italian Renaissance: “Come on, Leonardo, share your secret – what mixture are you using to get that green?” Sitting around the fire, artists pumping each other for inside information.
FIENI: Yes, exactly, “What did you put in that blue?” – that sort of thing.
DUNHAM: In Mustang, mixing hues to match the original 15th century hues must be very tricky.
FIENI: We don’t try to match the hue immediately. Because when you have a huge white space, you start incorrectly guessing the colors. The white will trick the eyes. First we make the drawing.
DUNHAM: With what?
FIENI: Pencil, charcoal. Then we use a snapping cord for the grid and a kind of compass for the circular shapes. And we mainly copy the original. Say we are copying a Medicine Buddha: We copy the original but with different decorations. Otherwise, it becomes clear that you are just copying—it’s not fresh. So we create a new Buddha based on the old standard iconometry.
As for matching hues, we begin by applying a solid layer of lighter color. Let’s say we’re beginning with malachite for green. Malachite is a very, very light hue. To get it a bit darker, we mix it with the opposite – either a little red or a little brown. It gives a bit of aging to the color. But it will still be a light green. Once the solid color is applied over the entire white surface, then, with watercolors, we start shading in until we match the original paint.
DUNHAM: Let’s get really basic, here. I’ve got a big chunk of malachite. What do I do next?
FIENI: You wrap the stone with several layers of cloth. Then you put the wrapped stone into a large but shallow stone vessel with a lip all the way around it. Then you slowly start hammering the malachite until it has been reduced to a mass of small pebbles. Then you remove the pebbles from the cloth wrapping and take a rectangular stone and start grinding – forward and backward – over the pebbles until the pebbles have been reduced to a powder. Then you transfer the powder to a mortar and you add a bit of hot water. Hot water will help – not micronizing, exactly – but it does get the pigment very, very fine. And you do that process for months. The whole process from stone to pigment can easily take two months.
Then, it depends on the hue. Malachite, for example: The more you grind, the lighter the green. You have to monitor the grinding every day, to make sure it’s not too light. In the case of lapis lazuli, if you over-grind, it becomes transparent.
The key for the grinders is to be patient. Incredibly patient.
DUNHAM: Once you have arrived at the correct hue, is the next step heating the glue?
FIENI: We use animal-skin-based glue. In Italy, we use rabbit. Here, it could be buffalo, cow – it could be whatever. I don’t know. I went to one of the thangka painters here in Kathmandu and asked for the best glue. There is a stamp on the container. It say’s “Made in India.” But nobody could tell me what it is. I just know that it comes as a protein gel. When you need to use it, you boil water, then add the glue, and when the consistency is just right –
DUNHAM: What is the right consistency?
FIENI: That’s difficult to explain. This entails the artistic side of process. You put your forefinger and thumb in the hot glue and put them together and you know by its stickiness if it is too strong or too weak. When you’ve got it right, you pour that into the mortar with the pigment. And you mix them together for a couple of days before it is ready to be used. Also, after a week or so of usage, you may have to add some heated water.
DUNHAM: Where do you get the gold for the embellishments? Is it legal to buy it here? It used to be that it wasn’t.
FIENI: Yeh, yeh, it’s legal as long as it’s not smuggled.
DUNHAM: 22 carat?
FIENI: I’m not sure because it’s not stamped. Judging by the look I would say around 22 carat. 24 carat is very warm looking. This is a bit colder in appearance. And the glue that has been mixed with the gold can influence the hue.
DUNHAM: My teacher [thangka master Pema Wangyal of Dolpa] used to test everything on his brush by putting it between his lips: That’s how he got the exact pointed-ness of his brush – not exactly a healthy procedure given the toxicity of the paints.
FIENI: I do the same thing. But for the pigments I have to warn my guys, “Guys, be careful.” Because even with watercolors, to test the thickness of the line either by using your lips or by painting a line across the top of your hand – when you are using cinnabar (mercury-sulfide), malachite (copper carbonate hydroxide), copper-arsenite, it’s not very wise to be painting your hands. And my friends here in Kathmandu – quite famous thangka painters – they keep preparing the point of the brushes by painting a line on their hands, and they’ve been doing this for ages, but…
DUNHAM: They’re not going to change.
FIENI: They’re not going to change. And they say, “Hey, look at me. I’m fine. It’s not so toxic.” OK, maybe they are lucky but it’s better not to risk the lives of my trainees.
DUNHAM: In the case of my teacher, he died of liver cancer when he was about 50.
FIENI: I can understand. In Italy, in past generations of artists – there are all the stories about them dying from tumors because of the chemicals they came in contact with. Here, in Mustang, we push a lot for the guys to take precautions and to use anti-gas masks.
DUNHAM: Gas masks?
FIENI: Here’s an example: We were in Lo Gekar. We were using a very strong chemical called Dimethylformamide [usually shortened to DMF – a solvent for chemical reactions, linked to cancer in humans, and thought to cause birth defects] and you need to wear a mask; it’s heavy stuff. And we were working in a small room and there were two clay statues that needed to be cleaned. Those statues had been historically placed near the entrance of the monastery. They were considered to be protector demons -- dharmapalas. My trainees were scared of working on them. I said, “Come on, guys, the monastery has been de-consecrated. The dharmapalas won’t harm you. Just wear the masks.
But the guys didn’t believe me.
Anyway, I had to be away for a week and when I came back, the guys hadn’t touched the statues except for one tiny area – about three square inches. I asked, “What happened?” And they said, “We told you, the statues are dangerous. The minute we started working on them, we got headaches and started vomiting.” I asked, “Did you wear the masks?” And they hadn’t. When I tried to explain that they vomited because they hadn’t worn the masks, they still wouldn’t believe me. So I put on a mask and worked on the statues for three hours, with them watching in the background. When they saw with their own eyes that the demons didn’t kill me because I was “defiling” them – then and only then did the guys work on the statues.
DUNHAM: How old were the statues?
FIENI: Well, Lo Gekar supposedly predates the structures in Lo Manthang. Supposedly dating back to the 7th-8th century. If you follow the legend, it had to be built in order that Samye could be built.
[The legend of Lo Gekar begins with a demon, which was destroying the foundations of Samye Monastery, under construction, located in south-central Tibet. Guru Rinpoche, who had just brought Buddhism to Tibet and was overseeing the construction of Samye, pursued the demon southwest, deep into Mustang. The two fought among Mustang’s snow peaks, desert canyons and grasslands. Guru Rinpoche prevailed, and he scattered the demon’s body parts across Mustang. The intestines fell down to where there is now the famous Mani wall. The heart fell down to where Lo Gekar is now. They built shrines all over Mustang to commemorate where the body parts of the demon fell and to celebrate Guru Rinpoche’s victory over the demon.]
DUNHAM: Yeh, I know that story. Guru Rinpoche was in a lot of places – a busy man.
FIENI: Well, he could fly. I would have done the same.
DUNHAM: And he didn’t need a visa.
FIENI: Yes, that too. And if you believe in the legend, Lo Gekar dates back to the 7th-8th century. But from what we could determine, the paintings we were working on were not 7th century at all – they were painted much, much later: 19th century. However, through the cracks, we could see that there were at least two layers of older paintings.
And this was a common custom in temple painting. The painters didn’t know about restoration. They didn’t know that there were methods of cleaning dirty wall paintings. So if the paintings were not clean anymore, they would either just destroy them or paint on top of the old paintings. As I said, we found evidence of older paintings behind the newer ones, but we could not gamble with what we already had – to take down the 19th century paintings, only to find a tiny area of older painting worth restoring – that would have been terrible.
DUNHAM: What’s left to do in Lo Manthang?
FIENI: My hope – apart from completing the project – is to create an example for Westerners by training and using local teams.
We already started this some years ago in China. There was a selection of five guys, who were the best in Sichuan, and they were training conservation techniques to Chinese locals. Unfortunately, we were kicked out about the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games because of the Tibetan riots in Lhasa and other places. I had projects in Lhasa and in the Chengdu area. Both projects were closed immediately. Americans have funded all of my projects and you know how sensitive the Chinese are about that. But the local people I had been working with proved that they could train other people, even after I left. They trained the locals, worked together, lived together – just as I had done in Mustang – they were getting along very well with each other, and with great results.
So I believe in this process and that it should be spread all over Asia. I am hoping to get more projects and train the teams as future teachers. In this way, slowly-slowly, the knowledge of conservation can be passed on and spread throughout Asia.
DUNHAM: It’s a damn shame you were kicked out of China.
FIENI: Especially since China could be a very good propellant for this sort of work. China should be happy with the kind of work I’m trying to do in Asia. I’m really trying to concentrate on respecting the local cultures, against the Western theories and the Western colonization mindset. I’ve tried to say as much, when documentaries were made about the Mustang project, but the filmmakers invariably edit out all my political anti-colonial statements.
FIENI: They say it isn’t “nice” to be critical of China.
To visit Luigi Fieni’s website
To view an eight-minute documentary about the Mustang project, produced in 2005
To view the trailer of a later documentary, MUSTANG – JOURNEY OF TRANSFORMATION, narrated by Richard Gere