Italian city opens Chinese dissident art show despite pressure from Beijing
- Despite veiled threats from China, an Italian city pushed forward with a show by dissident artist Badiucao. A provocative portrait of President Xi Jinping and paintings made with blood are among the works on display.
Chinese dissident artist Badiucao opened his first solo show in the northern Italian city of Brescia on Saturday, with works criticizing China's human rights record.
Chinese officials tried to put pressure on the city to cancel the event — but organizers went ahead anyway in a bid to "support freedom of expression."
What makes it so controversial?
The exhibition, which bears the title "China is (not) near — Works of a dissident artist," is on display at the Museum of Santa Giulia.
"Because my art is always focusing on human rights issues in China ... it makes me almost the type of No. 1 enemy,'' Badiucao told reporters.
"So that is why, for me, it is really hard to actually having an exhibition in an established gallery, a museum like this," he added.
One of the more provocative works is a hybrid portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam — highlighting the decline of rights in the former British colony.
There is also a series of 64 paintings of watches that the artist created with his own blood. The work references the watches given to Chinese soldiers who took part in the brutal Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
The exhibition also includes a torture device that has been re-designed as a rocking chair. For the first few days of the exhibit, Badiucao will sit in the torture chair and read from a diary that was sent to him by a resident in Wuhan. The work details 100 days of records from the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Anyone who tried to tell the truth or some story different from China's government's narrative would be punished," Badiucao said.
He put out an appeal on social media for people in Wuhan to share their stories, saying: "I'd like to share the burden and risk with you, if you trust me you can send your information."
How did China try to stop the show?
Ahead of the show's premiere, China urged Italian officials not to let the exhibition go ahead.
The Chinese Embassy in Italy sent a letter to the city of Brescia, issuing veiled threats concerning Italy's trade ties with China.
Badiucao's works are "full of anti-Chinese lies" that "jeopardize the friendly relations between China and Italy," the embassy wrote in its letter.
City officials and museum curators, however, pressed forward with the plans for the show.
"None of us in Brescia, neither in the city council nor among the citizens, had the slightest doubt about this exhibition going ahead," Deputy Mayor Laura Castelletti told news agency AFP.
Still, museum officials wanted to emphasize that exhibition "has no intention of offending the Chinese people or Chinese culture and civilization", the president of the Brescia Museums Foundation, Francesca Bazoli, said.
By deciding to show these works, she said, "we support freedom of expression."
Who is Badiucao?
Sporting a long beard and thick glasses, Badiucao has been drawing ire of Beijing for years for his critical works.
The 35-year-old artist works in exile from Australia and was a former assistant to prominent dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
He kept his identity secret for many years — with some dubbing him the "Chinese Banksy" after the secretive British street artist.
But Badiucao pushes back against the comparison.
"If Banksy's identity gets revealed he is not or she is not going to be hunted by the UK's national security police, which in my case is totally different,'' he said.
A previous attempt to display his work in Hong Kong in 2018 ended up falling through after Chinese authorities harassed his family and threatened those who worked for him.
Speaking with news agency AFP, the artist said he was "proud" that the Italian city went forward with his exhibition.
"I want to use my art to expose the lies, to expose the problems of the Chinese government, to criticize the Chinese government," he said.
"However, on the other hand, it's also celebrating the Chinese people, for how brave Chinese people are... even when they have been subjected to this very harsh environment with an authoritarian government," the artist added.
Badiucao's show will be on display in Brescia until February 13.