Australian artist Badiucao's exhibition finally shown in Melbourne after China 'threat' ordeal Favorite 



Feb 29 2020



This month, the art of Chinese dissident Badiucao has finally seen the light of day in Melbourne — more than a year after the Australian artist's Hong Kong exhibition was cancelled due to threats reportedly made by Chinese authorities.

Reflecting on those past events, the Shanghai-born, Melbourne-based artist told ABC Melbourne: "I would call it probably the darkest day in my life."
Originally titled Gongle, the exhibition was supposed to be the kick-off event for Freedom of Expression Week in 2018, organised by the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.

"It was meant to be a barometer for free expression in Hong Kong," Tom Grundy, editor-in-chief of HKFP told ABC Arts.

Now retitled Made in Hong Kong, Banned in China, the exhibition features 19 works and sits at the entrance of The Facility in Kensington, where 150 street artists have taken over the three-storey, red brick warehouse and a 22-wagon freight train as part of Melbourne's inaugural 10-day urban art festival Can't Do Tomorrow.

The exhibition has premiered at a tense moment in Chinese-Australian relations: this week the Chinese deputy ambassador defended China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak and accused Four Corners of fake news in a heated Q+A.

Badiucao is prolific, responding to global political affairs with his pen without missing a beat.
His portraits memorialise dissident figures and defenders of human rights, and his withering satirical cartoons lampoon Chinese leaders for censorship, rights violations and abuse of power, rendering an Orwellian portrait of life under the Communist Party regime.

The Melbourne exhibition features a neon sculpture in tribute to Chinese dissident, human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xa, and a series of distinctly Badiucao cartoons, including a handcuffed Joshua Wong (a prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activist), and China's leader Xi Jinping holding a rifle and standing over a slain Winnie the Pooh (the much-loved honey-seeking bear was banned in China following a viral meme).

Badiucao's signature bold woodcut aesthetic references Communist propaganda art, but in fact owes a debt to German expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz, known for her portrayal of the downtrodden, including peasants and working class people affected by poverty and hunger during wartime.
Badiucao says that in the 30s, writer Lu Xun (considered the father of modern Chinese literature) introduced Kollwitz's work to a group of Chinese left-wing artists who believed "art should serve society" and be a "form of expression for the voiceless" — sentiments the artist feels were lost when the Chinese Communist Party came into power in 1949.

"It [art] changed from an expression for the voiceless and became a voice of oppression, and became propaganda," Badiucao tells ABC Arts.

Through his art, Badiucao hopes to bring Kollwitz's influence back to "its original status as a voice for the voiceless".

As the National Gallery of Victoria and four other Melbourne landmarks were illuminated in red and gold last Friday as "a symbol of solidarity with Chinese Victorians" during the coronavirus crisis, Badiucao offered his own tribute with two new works.

On the opening night of his exhibition, the artist committed himself to a modified interrogation chair, also known as a tiger chair — a common instrument of interrogation in Chinese public security bureaus, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch.

For three hours he read from his Wuhan Diary project, narrating a local's day-to-day existence under quarantine.

In the exhibition space, a 12-metre paste-up mural featured faces rendered in black and white watercolour, four of them adorned with surgical masks inscribed with a message in Chinese characters which translates to: "No I can't. No I don't understand."

The message references a document by Dr Li Wenliang — an early coronavirus whistleblower who was reprimanded by police and told to sign a letter that accused him of "making false comments" and spreading rumours.

According to the BBC, the letter was shared on microblogging site Weibo at the start of January this year, a month before Dr Li succumbed to the disease and died.

"It's a huge tragedy," Badiucao told ABC Arts.

But everyday netizens have fought back with an online campaign: "People are taking selfie[s] and on those face masks they are writing: 'No, I can't' and 'No, I don't understand'," the artist said.

"They are saying no to [the] Chinese Government and saying yes to freedom of speech."

With the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation, the artist says the Chinese Government's control of information is "pushing Chinese [people] to their limitation".

"That's why we see people writing messages, posting selfies. Dr Li has become a hero, he is waking up [Chinese] people to see the truth about China."

After his Gongle exhibition was called off, Badiucao went into hiding and withdrew from the internet.

Badiucao had previously maintained anonymity, but then Chinese authorities "actually found my family in China and threatened me through them," he told ABC in 2019.

This presented him with a serious dilemma: remain silent, hide and hope for safety, or stand up and speak out.

Six months after Gongle was cancelled, Badiucao appeared in ABC documentary China's Artful Dissident (which aired on the 2019 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre) — in which he removed his mask and revealed his face for the first time.

It was the same documentary that inspired Can't Do Tomorrow festival organisers to reach out to the artist on Twitter.

"Street and urban art are one of the oldest forms of public protest, and sometimes the most powerful work responds to the political and social world that we live in," festival director Zoe Paulsen told ABC Arts.

Not all the fall-out from the documentary has been positive, however: earlier this year, Badiucao withdrew from the Sydney exhibition, The Art of Defiance — Hong Kong: Revolution of Our Time, a group show about the Hong Kong protests, after the gallery owner watched the documentary and "got scared and wanted to kill the whole show".

At first, the exhibition's organisers announced the show would continue with the omission of Badiucao's work, but after further negotiations, they reversed the decision.
Ultimately, the political cartoonist chose to boycott the exhibition in protest over the original decision to censor his work.

Buoyed by the exhibition finally opening in Melbourne, HKFP's Grundy says they will launch a public appeal to find space and finally display the political cartoonist's "much needed" work in Hong Kong "before it's too late".

"Humour and satire are the one thing that can undercut authoritarian regimes [like China]," he told ABC Arts.

Following Badiucao's decision to no longer be anonymous, he made the difficult decision to cut all ties to his family, in order to continue his fight for human rights, freedom and democracy.

When ABC Melbourne's Virginia Trioli asked him if creating art was worth that cost, he said:

"If no-one is standing up against it, the more people will have to suffer from it.

"I do hope my individual practice will awaken more people to join me. And only in that case, will we be free eventually."

Being an artist, he told ABC Arts, was "something that's in my blood".

Made in Hong Kong, Banned in China runs until February 29 as part of Can't Do Tomorrow Urban Art Festival at The Facility in Melbourne.

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