In a museum in Brescia, northern Italy, Shanghai-born artist Badiucao is making final adjustments to an exhibition that has infuriated Chinese officials.
Images of President Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh, a tongue-in-cheek comparison now widely censored on Chinese social media, hang alongside a tribute to Wuhan whistleblower Li Wenliang and a depiction of riot police chasing a protester. Mock posters for the upcoming Winter Olympics show a snowboarder gliding through a CCTV camera and a biathlete pointing a rifle at a blindfolded Uighur prisoner.
Badiucao’s provocative new works will be released to the public on Saturday, despite protests from Chinese diplomats. In a letter to the mayor of Brescia, the country’s embassy in Rome said that the artworks are “full of anti-Chinese lies” and that they “distort the facts, spread false information, mislead the understanding of the Italian people and seriously injure the feelings of the Chinese people, “according to the local newspaper Giornale di Brescia.
For the dissident artist, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Australia since 2009, the dispute comes as a little surprise.
“It’s almost impossible to avoid offending the Chinese government these days,” he says, showing CNN the exhibition before its opening. “Anything can be sensitive; anything can be problematic.”
“Xi goes bear hunting” by Badiucao Credit: Badiucao
Since the embassy filed its complaint last month, museum officials and local politicians have framed the exhibit, titled “La Cina (non) è Vicina” or “China is (not) close,” as a symbol of freedom. expression.
“I must say that I had to read the letter twice because it surprised me”, relates the Deputy Mayor of Brescia, Laura Castelletti, calling it “an interference in the artistic and cultural decision of a city”. The request to cancel the program, he adds, has only “attracted more attention.”
For her part, the president of the Brescia Museum Foundation, Francesca Bazoli, says that going ahead with the exhibition “was a question of freedom of artistic expression.”
The Chinese embassy in Rome has not responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment.
The once anonymous Badiucao rose to fame in 2011, when he began posting cartoons about China’s handling of the Wenzhou high-speed train accident on the Sina Weibo microblogging site. The images were repeatedly censored and, although he is now an Australian citizen, authorities in the country have cracked down on his work ever since.
Artist Badiucao Credit: Badiucao
Badiucao says he is regularly harassed, and occasionally threatened, online, where he posts a regular stream of scorching cartoons on Twitter and Instagram. “It’s like a battlefield and this is how you can use the visual language and memes of the Internet and this is how you can dissolve the authority of censorship,” he says.
Given the political and commercial pressures his collaborators face, the decision to go ahead with the show makes Brescia “a role model for the rest of the world,” he adds.
“As an artist, I have experienced censorship so many times, for so many years and in so many places, not only in China or Hong Kong, but also in Australia and in many other countries,” he says. “I rarely get an opportunity like this, to show (my work in an exhibition), because all the galleries, curators and museums are concerned that if they exhibit my art … then they are putting their Chinese market in jeopardy.
“China is very good at using its capital and money to control, manipulate and silence people’s criticism, and this is how it is reflected in our world, the art market.”