30 Mar Chinese censorship concerns after three artworks taken down by Canberra gallery
Bill Birtles – ABC – 30 March 2021
A Canberra art gallery has removed three artworks relating to Chinese leaders after receiving complaints and hundreds of angry messages, in what the artist believes was a coordinated attack.
The Ambush Gallery at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra removed three pieces — including one depicting Communist China’s founding leader Mao Zedong as Batman and another depicting him as Winnie the Pooh — after the artist, Luke Cornish received “hundreds of messages” claiming the works were racist.
The works were part of a 25-piece exhibition exploring the pressures people are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The whole show is a comment on the abuse of power,” Mr Cornish said.
Mr Cornish is a well-known Canberra artist who has previously exhibited works in the gallery.
“I was just getting smashed on Instagram and social media, I think the gallery were getting smashed too,” he said.
“It was such a bullying mentality, so the gallery made the call to take the artworks down.”
“I 100 per cent unintentionally put them in a tough position — I think it’s just caution by a small gallery.”
In response to criticism of racism, Mr Cornish previously apologised for the work depicting Chairman Mao as Batman, which he said was an attempt to mock conspiracy theories around coronavirus origins, but hadn’t taken into account the extent of racism Chinese communities had encountered since the pandemic.
But he said the other two works were “taking the piss” out of an authoritarian regime.
“The whole intention of the exhibition is to start conversations, and that’s what it’s done, but I won’t apologise for calling out genocide,” he said.
Some other works that were not removed referenced the protest movement in Hong Kong, along with mocking Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol building and Iranian leaders for denying the existence of homosexuality.
‘Unintended hurt’ to Chinese community
The ABC asked the Ambush Gallery why the artwork was removed, to which the gallery said: the decision was “based around unintended hurt caused to the Chinese community who felt the work was feeding into negative racial narratives.”
It said the intention of the artwork was to “call out the racism experienced by the Chinese community” but added, “the experience of the series did not reflect the artist’s intention, and this is why we removed it.”
When asked why it removed two additional artworks not related to the Batman piece — which Cornish apologised for — it said: “We respect the artist’s freedom to express his political opinion”, adding that the rest of the exhibition — minus the three pieces — was still on display.
The Australian National University said despite the gallery being in its precinct, it was not affiliated with the university.
“Neither the artwork nor the exhibition were commissioned by ANU,” a spokesman told the ABC.
A spokesman did confirm that the International Student Department of the ANUSA — the undergraduate student association — made complaints, which ANU passed on to the gallery.
“ANU is aware artwork has been taken down at Ambush Gallery, which was an independent decision of the gallery,” he said.
Concerns over Chinese students applying Beijing’s standards of censorship outside China’s borders have risen in recent years.
In 2018, a student artwork celebrating their Taiwanese heritage was painted over by the Rockhampton Council in deference to the Chinese government’s demand that Taiwan was part of the People’s Republic of China.
In response to some reports of Chinese students complaining about teaching materials that they deemed offensive, the federal government this month changed language in the Higher Education Support Act to emphasise “freedom of speech” at Australian universities.
“It is disturbing that in the middle of an inquiry into the foreign interference legislation in higher education that a gallery located in the middle of a university campus is allowing itself to be censored to appease a foreign authoritarian power,” said Liberal senator James Paterson, who chairs the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
The ABC has also contacted the International Student Department at ANU for comment.