The show continues, even after China tries to shut it down

BRESCIA, Italy – A week before his first solo exhibition, Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao was in head-down work mode: setting up the ...


BRESCIA, Italy – A week before his first solo exhibition, Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao was in head-down work mode: setting up the exhibition during the day and sharpening hundreds of pencils with a knife at night.

Placed closely together, the pencils – 3,724 in total – were part of an installation in the show “China is (not) near”, which opens on Saturday in the municipal museum from Brescia, an industrial city in the northern Italian region of Lombardy.

After a decade of building an online audience as a political cartoonist by lambasting China, whether for its censorship (and Western complicity), its treatment of the Uyghur minority or the repression in Hong Kong, Badiucao has said he was keen to show his work in a traditional institutional setting.

He wasn’t always so open. Until not so long ago, Badiucao was so concerned about the Chinese government’s retaliation that he kept his identity a secret, drawing comparisons to British street artist Banksy. He revealed his face in a documentary 2019, and now says he has found safety in the exhibition, although he still prefers to use his artist name.

And, on a recent afternoon in November, Badiucao (pronounced bah-diyoo-tsow) was visibly relieved that the solo exhibition in Brescia was continuing.

Last month, cultural officials from the Chinese Embassy in Rome sent Mayor Emilio Del Bono of Brescia an email criticizing the city’s decision to host the exhibition and calling for it to be canceled. The show would jeopardize friendly relations between China and Italy, the email added.

In an interview in his office, Del Bono said, “It was clear that he is an undesirable artist for the Chinese government.

He and the president of the Brescia Musei Foundation, which manages the museum, responded with a letter stressing that the exhibition in no way shed a bad light on China or its people, but that social criticism was a function of the ‘art, and that Brescia had “always stood up for freedom of expression and will continue to do so,” Del Bono said.

“Art should never be censored,” Del Bono said. “In democracies, he often denounces, even mocks those in power. It is part of the rules of democracy.

He said he had not heard from the Embassy since; Chinese authorities in Rome did not respond to New York Times inquiries by phone, email and hand-delivered letter.

“I am fortunate that his city and this museum understand my art and have the courage to stand up for my right to expression,” Badiucao said.

In China, censorship has long been a reality for the country’s cultural sectors, and the already tight space for free speech has been shrinking since Xi Jinping’s ascendancy in 2012. Increasingly, it is not uncommon for specific works of art, and even whole shows, to be drawn at the request of the Chinese authorities – even if the work is not overtly political.

Beyond the country’s borders, China’s vast censorship apparatus and economic strength are also increasingly being felt. Direct requests from Chinese authorities to cancel art exhibitions, as happened in Brescia, are relatively rare, or at least not often publicized.

More often than not, art is the victim of self-censorship on the part of those who fear clashing with the Chinese authorities – and thus losing access to the country’s vast market. These anxieties are most apparent in Hollywood, where movie studios sometimes have deliberately altered films for fear of upsetting China, which recently overtook the United States as the world’s largest film market.

Badiucao said he and his family in Shanghai had been harassed by Chinese authorities as well as Chinese nationalists in an attempt to silence him. “He’s a model,” he says.

In the past, however, the pressure seems to have worked. Events where the artist had to express himself have been canceled, and the owner of a gallery in Sydney had doubts about the presentation of Badiucao’s art, so he pulled it out of a group show. And what should have been his first solo show, scheduled for Hong Kong in 2018, was canceled by the artist and sponsors – Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and the Hong Kong Free Press, a local publication – after “threats uttered by the Chinese authorities relating to the artist ”, organizers said in a statement at the time.

Several works in Brescia were exhibited in Melbourne, Australia, in February 2020 as part of an urban art festival bringing together more than 100 artists. They included a neon sculpture of the Chinese dissident and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died in 2017, and his wife, Liu Xia, as well as watercolor portraits including Dr Li Wenliang, who issued an early warning about the coronavirus and was later reprimanded by Chinese authorities. He died in February 2020 after contracting the virus.

The exhibition in Brescia is a career retrospective featuring installations, oil paintings, drawings, sculptures and two scheduled performances.

Museum director Stefano Karadjov said the exhibition was about “finding an artist” who works in a variety of media but had been relegated to showing his work online “because that was the only way for him to make art and to have his art seen. “

“A public museum should give space to those without a market,” said Karadjov, adding that he hoped this would stimulate further support for the artist.

Badiucao said he hopes the Brescia show will introduce him to a new audience and see his work in a new light.

“Certainly when people come to a gallery or a museum the expectations are very different” than when the works are seen online, he said. “An institution like this has inherent power and authority, so if you’re exhibiting in a space like this, you’re pretty privileged.”

He also understands that he faces obstacles.

“Being an artist means that you have to have exhibitions, that you have to be represented by galleries, that you have to be accepted in the traditional art market, which is obviously very difficult for me because doing business with me means that you refuse to do business with China, ”he said.

But in Brescia, at least, he found support.

“We never thought for a moment to cancel the exhibition,” said Francesca Bazoli, president of the Brescia Musei Foundation. “We believe in the role of contemporary art as a powerful and inspiring instrument to channel themes that affirm freedom of expression,” she said. “We didn’t invite Badiucao because he was a dissident Chinese, we invited him because he’s an artist who shows us how art can be used as a critical tool. It was a cultural and not a political operation.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The show continues, even after China tries to shut it down
The show continues, even after China tries to shut it down
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