This past week, the exhibition The Art of Defiance - Hong Kong: Revolution of Our Time, opened at the Sydney gallery m2 – a space for hire located in Surry Hills. The exhibition was organised by the group NSW Hongkongers, an independent outreach group of Hong Kong expats and Australian citizens.
While the theme of the exhibition was certainly current and contentious – swelling from the Hong Kong democracy movement and advocating freedom of speech – the opening (6 February) delivered a mixed message, with the work of Australian-Chinese political artist and cartoonist Badiucao withdrawn from the exhibition.
Over 20 Australian and international photographers and artists shared their support of the Hong Kong protestors through socially charged artworks on display. But, perhaps, one of the most celebrated in this arena was missing.
Badiucao told ArtsHub: ‘After the opening, (the NSW Hongkongers) contacted me to say have they some unfortunate news, and the next day I find out the gallery owner refused to show my work. Initially the manager of the gallery is very supportive – they said, “We love the show, we are going to do this”. Then the owner, a senior woman who is the big boss, watched my documentary and got spooked out. I don’t really blame her. I only know this because the Hong Kong organiser told me.’
Badiucao, who is no stranger to censorship, told ArtsHub that is was less about the removal of the artworks and rather how it was handled, and the decision to shut the conversation down around it.
‘It is compromising freedom of speech, and we should have a public discussion about it,’ he said.
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The artist reports that the gallery’s initial reaction was to cancel the exhibition, however, the organisers negotiated a deal with the owner to continue with the show, but without Badiucao’s work.
The artist was only notified after the exhibition opened.
Upon hearing the news, Badiucao took to social media over the weekend.
A spokesperson for NSW Hongkongers told ArtsHub: ‘As a community, we strive to spread the word about Hong Kong democracy movement and raise awareness about the amazing art that has been associated with it through this exhibition. Therefore, we were working so hard to try to get Badiucao’s work up again in the gallery. We were very excited to get the go ahead from the gallery but we respect Badiucao’s wishes so we have removed his works from the exhibition. We express our greatest gratitude to Badiucao … but we have no further comment at the moment.’
‘It is ambiguous that the Hong Kong group don’t want to speak out. I personally feel very disappointed,’ Badiucao said of the exhibition championing freedom of speech and democracy.
Badiucao told ArtsHub that the organiser had come to a new agreement and returned his artworks to the exhibition.
‘But [they offer] no public acknowledgment why [it was] censored in the beginning, or apology to me. This is an insult to me, and I don’t feel the work is respected by the gallery. I demand them to explain the reason publicly,’ Badiucao said.
The management of m2 Gallery also responded with a formal statement today to ArtsHub: ‘NSW Hongkongers have been working tirelessly with the operator of m2 Gallery in the past few days to find a resolution between the concerned stakeholders of the gallery. We would like to announce that as of 11:30 am of 9 February, the operator of m2 Gallery has successfully negotiated to allow us to display @Badiucao’s work.’
They added: ‘The operator would like to emphasise that they have always been supportive of the art community and will continue to do so.’
In late 2018, Badiucao’s exhibition Gongle was 'shut down' by Chinese authorities.
He said of that situation: ‘In the end of 2018, seven months before the massive Hong Kong democratic movement broke out, three days before the opening of my first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, two policemen from Shanghai came to my family in China and threatened them in order to stop my show. The show was cancelled eventually due to the fear of the safety of myself, my family and everyone who helped in the show from Hong Kong.
That complete body of those Hong Kong works will be presented in a special exhibition, retitled Made in Hong Kong, Banned in China, at the inaugural Can’t do tomorrow festival of urban and street art, at the multi-level warehouse, The Faculty in Melbourne, 20-29 February.
‘This will be the first time this whole set of works will be shown, and we will not back down,’ he told ArtsHub. ‘I am living the risk 24/7 every day.’
With regard to the Sydney exhibition, Badiucao said that he has also had difficulty trying to speak with the organisers and the gallery about the censorship, and to expand the conversation publicly.
‘[They] said to me that they are not willing to talk to the media any further. I feel like I am abandoned in this situation, that I am fighting this alone.I don’t want to blame either of the group. I know the risk can be real and they are entitled to be afraid.’
‘If the situation is indeed based on fear for both groups [involved], then our society – our Australian society – is also responsible for this awkward situation. Our government should [provide] a place that is fair for those parties to stand out and feel safe against this kind of bullying,’ said Badiucao.
It is Badiucao’s view that the organisers should not have compromised, and rather unplugged the whole exhibition as a mark of integrity toward their fight for democratic right.
‘But they did not have the confidence that they would have support when this news is out. Is that because our society has failed, and not show enough concern on this issue? From my understanding, being silent is not a way to defeat the sphere. For me this is not really acceptable.’
The m2 exhibition, The Art of Defiance – Hong Kong: Revolution of Our Time, continues in Surry Hills, Sydney until 18 February.