Beijing v Brescia: Italian city fights Chinese demands to censor exhibition of dissident artist

Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao has been accused of "spreading anti-Chinese lies" in his works

Badiucao's 2018 cartoon morphing the faces of President Xi Jinping with Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam ©Badiucao

Badiucao's 2018 cartoon morphing the faces of President Xi Jinping with Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam ©Badiucao

The Chinese embassy in Italy has demanded the cancellation of an exhibition by the Chinese dissident artist Badiucao, scheduled to open on 13 November at the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia, prompting the city's mayor and its leading cultural officials to speak out against the attempted censorship.

On Thursday, Brescia's mayor, Emilio del Bono, received a letter from the Chinese embassy's cultural office, published by the local newspaper Giornale di Brescia, which describes the forthcoming exhibition China is (not) near: Badiucao at the Santa Giulia Museum as "full of anti-Chinese lies". And its staging will "endanger the friendly relations between Italy and China", the letter continues.

"I am not compromising an inch. I have the freedom to express what I want," Badiucao tells The Art Newspaper from Brescia, where he is currently installing the show.

Born and raised in Shanghai but living in exile in Melbourne, Australia, for the past decade, the 35-year-old artist is known for making political cartoons, which typically take a critical stance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His works often make direct reference to a number of high-ranking Chinese government officials, including its head of state Xi Jinping and Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam.

Brescia will be the first major exhibition of Badiucao's work, after a 2019 show in Hong Kong was pulled amid concerns for his personal safety. Prior to the Hong Kong show, Chinese police detained several of his family members and threatened him with arrest.

Until this incident, Badiucao hid his identity, leading Western media to describe him as the "Chinese Banksy" (a term that he says he loathes). But recently, he has become more willing to show his face and speak openly to the press, a tactic he says only weakens the CCP's ability to censor him. "This time it's different, they know my face. They have nothing in their hands to control me," he says. Nonetheless, he adds that along with the official letter sent to Brescia's mayor, he has personally received threatening messages from officials from China Global Television Network (CGTN) warning him against "harming national interests".

These threats have caused a strong response from Brescia's cultural officials who have rejected the demands from the Chinese embassy to pull the exhibition and have issued a number of official statements in support of Badiucao and freedom of artistic expression.

"What has happened only confirms the urgency to discuss themes of democracy and freedom [...] Museums must protect this," says Stefano Karadjov, the director of the Brescia Museums Foundation, which runs the Santa Giulia Museum.

He tells The Art Newspaper that in the foundation's 20-year history it has never before faced a request to censor an exhibition. He adds that as of today, the Chinese embassy has not responded to its refusal to alter the exhibition's content.

Karadjov's position is echoed by Brescia's mayor, who told the Italian newspaper Il Foglio that while the friendship between the Italian and Chinese people “is not in question”, it is "important to show that you can stay friends while criticising some things”.

The city's deputy mayor later tweeted: “For us, art and freedom of expression are an essential combination.”