Why this Winnie The Pooh artwork has angered China

Exhibiting a torture instrument as an innocent rocking chair, Chinese dissident artist Badiucao mocks the propaganda of Beijing in a new show – while appropriating its codes.

Defying calls from the Chinese government to cancel it, the northern Italian city of Brescia is hosting the first international solo exhibition by the 35-year-old artist and exile from China who lives in Australia.

Badiucao's works are "full of anti-Chinese lies" that "jeopardise the friendly relations between China and Italy", charged Beijing's embassy in Rome in a letter sent last month to Brescia's town hall.

But the city stood its ground.

"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 AFP.

A visitor takes photos of 'Winnie the Trophies, 2017 by Chinese artist Badiucao on November 12, 2021 at an exhibition in Brescia, Lombardy. Source: Piero Cruciatti via AFP/Getty Images
Artist Badiucao's exhibition in Brescia, Lombardy, has angered China. Source: Piero Cruciatti via AFP/Getty Images

Brescia, known for its Roman ruins, has a long tradition of welcoming dissidents, painters and writers, in the "defence of artistic freedom", she said.

The last was in 2019, with the works of Kurdish artist Zehra Dogan, who spent nearly three years in jail in Turkey.

The new show, "China is (not) near – works of a dissident artist", which opened on Friday (local time), denounces political repression in China and the country's censorship of the origins of the coronavirus, two explosive subjects for Beijing.

The exhibit, whose title is an allusion to a famous Italian film from 1967, "China Is Near", runs until February 13 at the Santa Giulia museum.

In an interview with AFP, Badiucao – who has been called "the Chinese Banksy" – said he was "very happy and proud" the city "had the courage to say 'no' to China to defend fundamental rights".

Chinese dissident artist Badiucao poses next to his artwork entitled
Badiucao's exhibition is called "China is (not) near -- works of a dissident artist". Source: Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

Badiucao receives 'daily death threats'

"I want to use my art to expose the lies, to expose the problems of the Chinese government, to criticise the Chinese government, 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," Badiucao said, speaking in English.

Plans for a Hong Kong show in 2018 fell through after pressure on the artist and his entourage, the bespectacled Badiucao – who sports a long, shaggy beard – said.

"The national security police went to intimidate my family in Shanghai," he said, adding they threatened to "send officers" to the opening if the exhibit were held.

Among the works exhibited in Brescia that have provoked the ire of Beijing is a famous image of Chinese President Xi Jinping merged with the face of Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam to illustrate the erosion of self-rule in the former British colony.

Chinese artist Badiucao poses next to his artwork series inspired by the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.
Badiucao poses next to his artwork series inspired by the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. Source: Piero Cruciatti/ AFP via Getty Images

Another depicts Mr Xi and Winnie the Pooh, a cartoon character used to mock the president. In 2018, China banned Disney film Christopher Robin's release featuring the beloved childhood icon, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The Chinese Communist Party "thinks that all free artists are its enemies, that's why it hates me so much", Badiucao, who added that he receives "daily death threats" on social media, said.

Due to heavy censorship, he said he only learned decades later as a university student studying law in China about the government's brutal 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square.

He decided to dedicate himself to art, moving to Australia in 2009 and only revealing his identity publicly on its 30th anniversary a decade later.

Another of his works depicts 64 watches painted with the artist's own blood, representing those given to Chinese soldiers, according to Badiucao, as a reward for their participation in the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The exhibition also pays tribute to "Tank Man", the unknown man wearing a white shirt and carrying two plastic shopping bags who stood up to advancing tanks.

In a nod to current events, the tanks remodelled by Badiucao are topped by balls resembling the Covid-19 virus under a microscope.

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