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Badiucao: Speaking Out Through Art Against Censorship and Oppression
"My hero is Sisyphus, since what I'm doing is always censored...But the action of an individual who keeps trying in the right direction has its own value."
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Badiucao, who is one of the most popular and prolific political artists from China. He confronts social and political issues head on in his work, using his art to challenge censorship and dictatorship in China. He worked as a graphic designer and assistant for Ai Weiwei in Berlin, 2018-2019. In 2020 he won the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.
Our conversation, which took place on January 30, 2022, has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): In November, the municipal museum of Brescia, Italy, had a solo show of your work, which opened despite attempts of the Chinese Embassy in Rome to have it cancelled. I know this is not the first time the Chinese government has tried to prevent the public display of your work.
The title of the exhibition is "China is (Not) Near," which references a 1960s Marco Bellocchio film called China is Near/La cina è vicina. But in a way, China is always near for political exiles and opponents of the state who live abroad. They feel the long arm of the Chinese state no matter where they are.
Badiucao (B): They titled the exhibition with a reference to that Italian film, but the point for me is that people do not know China. Our lives are full of products made in China, there are images of China's economic miracles or achievements in the media. But does the perception really match the truth of the country? I would put a huge question mark on that. China puts a lot of money into propaganda, including into networks for foreign audiences like CGTN, and they have an exchange program for foreigners to come to China to learn how to be journalists.
RBG: An authoritarian state model of journalism...
B: This creates a huge problem for public understanding of what is really happening in China. As a person who was born in China, lived in China for more than 20 years, but also now living in the West for more than 10 years, I think I'm an artist who is entitled to explain what is really happening in China according to my own experience.
I use art to criticize China's issues and problems, especially its human rights record, and point out the responsibility of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. This makes me a target of censorship, and what happened in Italy with my exhibition is a result of that.
It also happened in 2018, when I had to cancel my Hong Kong exhibition. This time, too, Beijing sent a threatening letter to the Brescia authorities, as well as to the museum. The tone of the letter is not what you would expect from a diplomatic communication.
RBG: Being familiar with this kind of authoritarian state messaging, I would imagine it had an arrogant tone.
B: Yes, it is not an expression of concern; it is an order they are trying to give, as if Brescia were a little town in China. And the sad thing is usually this way works, and it does silence a lot of people outside of China. That's also because they put future events on the line as well.
Such communications are also accompanied by harassment. They send trolls to my public events, to shout and then refuse to leave, sending death threats in person, anything to disturb the event. There is also on-line harassment, organized on apps like WeChat, which is very popular among the Chinese diaspora.
RBG: Authoritarian regimes do their best to rewrite history and erase the memory of dissenters. As a historian I see your art as creating a kind of alternate archive, reminding people of past and present oppression behind the glossy images of China we see —an alternate history to counter the official record of the CCCP.
As in your posters made for the 2022 Winter Olympics, you don't let "sportswashing" or other diversionary tactics stand. Your art says that we can't separate the oppression and brutality from the nationalist spectacle.
B: The Chinese government is creating an entire narrative to describe the modern world and its place in it: It's creating the so-called China Story. I feel as an artist it's my responsibility to provide a personal perspective of what happened in this history, and what is happening now.
Because of censorship, and because the Chinese government has grown into this powerful entity, it is very easy to lose hope if my motivation is, well, I'm going to create this silver bullet art, and tomorrow China will be changed.
I would say my personal hero is Sisyphus, it seems like what I'm doing is always censored and taken down, constantly being threatened. But the very action of an individual who keeps trying in the right direction has its own value, regardless of the result. I'm making art not just to potentially trigger a change, but to have a record of formal protest or resistance. It is a record from a personal perspective, and it's a way to preserve my identity and my understanding of the world. It could be very useful in the future if the big environment is eventually improved and changed.
So that's the spirit in which I started, and now I have many followers, not just outside of China but also inside of China. People use VPN as a technology to go around the Great Firewall. Art is a great tool to communicate to people in the West and people inside of China.
RBG: You use a lot of red in your art, and it draws on Chinese visual and propaganda traditions, but you are engaging in a form of counter-messaging. Can you talk about that? I think it's very effective.
B: The color red is always associated with passion, or even revolution, or blood. And that's why it was used by the Communists early on. And then it just became this iconic color for modern China. It is also my visual experience growing up in China. You have a red flag in every classroom, in a lot of public places. The government never shied away from exploiting this color, because it's so intense and catches the public's attention.
I'm always interested in reversing power. So I created a lot of work using the same color, and also China's propaganda artistic style. I always feel like I want to reverse using the same language.
RBG: I'm interested in personality cults, and I see Xi Jinping's personality cult growing. Often, when there is an elevation of the leader in this way, more repression follows. How do you see this personality cult of Xi, and what can we expect from it?
B: The route for Xi to claim more power is not smooth. There are a lot of power struggles, almost like the Chinese version of Game of Thrones.
We are witnessing the growth of his leader cult, initially it was really kind of clumsy, they organized something like him going to a shop and buying himself steamed buns, and that became a meme among the Chinese dissenter community. But his point is he wants to be seen as a people's leader.
RBG: Ah, the man of the people, very familiar!
B: He almost wants to have people think of him as Mao 2.0, so that it legitimizes his grasp of power, because absolute power is his key to safety, on the top of the throne. We could get lessons from Xi's behavior, and from Putin's cult too. These dictators are kind of mimicking and learning from each other. They must have a WeChat group, daily chatting. "Which uniform is better for me?"
RBG: You're doing an NFT collection. How do you see the digital space in terms of your own future as an artist?
B: NFT gives artists new publics, but it's also interesting to me because the major enemy that I'm facing is censorship, when my information has to be taken down.
In the physical world it's so hard to have art exhibitions. Of every gallery threatened by the Chinese government, probably 99% will actually compromise. So, physical space is hard, digital space is really my last safe haven, it's my last sanctuary. And NFT is providing this opportunity for me as a political digital artist, to have a way to collect some support, have a way to operate like a normal artist in a gallery space, because now I can sell art. And it's providing people who want to buy my art a layer of protection as well.