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US town arts center removes paintings depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping

Cary Arts Center in Cary, N.C. (James Willamor/Flickr)
February 08, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Organizers of a recent exhibit of paintings by U.S.-based Chinese artist Weng Bing removed three out of 38 paintings, citing “political” content, RFA has learned.

Arts officials in the Town of Cary in North Carolina removed one painting depicting Chinese president Xi Jinping standing on the shoulders of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, surrounded by a sea of skulls.

A painting showing a hand reaching out to grasp the world with China colored in black, and a portrait of Xi splattered with grey paint were also taken down from the exhibit in the town’s Senior Center.

Lyman Collins, Cultural Arts Manager of the Town of Cary, told RFA that the works were removed because they were “inconsistent” with the character of the works Weng had submitted when applying for the exhibit.

“The issue in this particular case was the artist including among the works she hung in the current exhibition three painting[s] that were not consistent with the works she had submitted for review,” Collins said in comments emailed to RFA’s Cantonese Service.

“That was the basis for their removal.”

All three paintings were removed before the exhibit opened on Jan. 22.

Strong protest

Weng told RFA that she “strongly protested” the move to the organizers.

“The organizer made a point of asking me [on Jan. 18] about the hidden meaning of those three paintings,” she said. “But I received an email from [a town official] on Jan. 22 telling me to move them.”

“He said that he personally liked the paintings very much, and that he wanted to protect free speech, but that government departments have to take all views into account,” she said. “I asked him to make it very clear exactly who was being harmed by these paintings, but they weren’t there when I went for the launch party.”

“He told me that they were political works,” Weng said. “I am pretty disappointed in American freedom of expression.”

Weng said she had decided to include political art in the exhibit after being forced to remain silent about human rights abuses when she lived in China.

She was inspired in particular by activist Dong Yaoqiong, who was sent for “compulsory treatment” after she streamed live video of herself splashing ink on a poster of President Xi in protest at “authoritarian tyranny” on July 4, 2018.

Held in hospital

Dong, who made her protest in Shanghai, is now being held as a psychiatric patient in a women’s ward in Hunan’s Zhuzhou No. 3 Hospital.

“I was in China when she did that, and I wondered how it was that someone could just disappear after splashing some ink on a portrait,” Weng said. “I was very angry and felt for that young woman.”

“Our society is so sick that they even persecute the innocent … I couldn’t stay silent any longer,” she said. “I felt I had a duty as an artist to do this.”

Weng said she made the paintings several months after submitting her application for the exhibit in Cary.

“I made the initial application a year ago, and I submitted 10 works for review,” she said.

“Those three paintings didn’t even exist at that time; I didn’t decide to make them until the end of November last year; there was no deception involved … and at no point did they say that political themes wouldn’t be acceptable.”

No plan to stop

Weng says she plans to keep on making political art, now that she is based in the U.S., touching on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, which ended the student-led pro-democracy movement 30 years ago in Beijing and other major cities.

Zhou Fengsuo, a veteran of the 1989 protests who now lives in the U.S., said Weng is using her art as a form of protest against dictatorship under Xi, who recently began a second, unlimited term in office.

“Ms. Weng Bing is very courageous; it’s very hard to get paintings like that exhibited in a public place, even in the U.S., because most people engage in self-censorship,” Zhou said.

“It doesn’t matter where you are; there are always going to be people who don’t like it—Chinese people who’ve been brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party, and who protect its interests,” he said.

“Chinese power extends into every corner of the earth.”