BRESCIA, Italy — With a week to go before his first solo exhibition, the Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao was in head-down work mode: installing the show during the day, and sharpening hundreds of pencils with a knife at night.
Set closely together, the pencils — 3,724 in all — were part of an installation in the show “China Is (Not) Near,” which opens Saturday in the municipal museum of Brescia, an industrial city in the northern Italian region of Lombardy.
After a decade building an online following as a political cartoonist by lambasting China, whether for its censorship (and Western complicity in it), its treatment of the Uyghur minority, or the crackdown in Hong Kong, Badiucao said he was keen to show work in a traditional institutional setting.
He wasn’t always so forthcoming. Until not so long ago, Badiucao had been so concerned about reprisals from the Chinese government that he had kept his identity a secret, eliciting comparisons to the British street artist Banksy. He revealed his face in a 2019 documentary, and now says that he’s found safety in exposure, though he still prefers to use his artist name.
And, on a recent November afternoon, Badiucao (pronounced bah-diyoo-tsow) was visibly relieved that the solo show in Brescia was going ahead at all.
Last month, cultural officials at the Chinese Embassy in Rome sent Mayor Emilio Del Bono of Brescia an email criticizing the city’s decision to host the exhibition and requesting that it be canceled. The show would compromise friendly relations between China and Italy, the email added.
In an interview in his office, Del Bono said, “It was clear this is an undesirable artist for the Chinese government.”
He and the president of the Brescia Musei Foundation, which runs the museum, responded with a letter emphasizing that the show in no way shed a bad light on China or its people, but that social critique was a function of art, and that Brescia had “always championed freedom of expression and would continue to do so,” Del Bono said.
“Art should never be censured,” Del Bono said. “In democracies, it often denounces, and even mocks, those who are in power. It’s part of the rules of democracy.”
He said he had not heard from the embassy since; Chinese officials in Rome did not respond to inquiries from The New York Times by telephone, email and hand-delivered letter.
“I am fortunate that his city and this museum has an understanding of my art and has the courage to defend my right to expression,” Badiucao said.
In China, censorship has long been a reality for the country’s cultural sectors, and the already-narrow space for free expression has only continued to shrink since the ascendance in 2012 of Xi Jinping. More and more, it is not uncommon for specific works of art, and even entire shows, to be pulled at the behest of the Chinese authorities — even if the works are not overtly political.
Beyond the country’s borders, China’s vast censorship apparatus and economic strength are increasingly being felt as well. Direct requests from Chinese officials to cancel art shows, as happened in Brescia, are relatively rare, or at least not often publicized.
More often, art falls victim to self-censorship on the part of those fearful of running afoul of the authorities in China — and thus losing access to the country’s vast market. Those anxieties are most apparent in Hollywood, where film studios have at times deliberately altered movies out of fear of antagonizing China, which recently passed the United States as the world’s largest movie market.
Badiucao said he and his family in Shanghai had been harassed by the Chinese authorities as well as Chinese nationalists in an effort to silence him. “It’s a pattern,” he said.
In the past, though, the pressure seems to have worked. Events where the artist was expected to speak have been called off, and the owner of a gallery in Sydney had second thoughts about showing Badiucao’s art, so he withdrew it from a group show. And what should have been his first solo show, scheduled in Hong Kong in 2018, was canceled by the artist and the sponsors — Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and the Hong Kong Free Press, a local publication — after “threats made by the Chinese authorities relating to the artist,” the organizers said in a statement at the time.
Several works in Brescia were exhibited in Melbourne, Australia, in February 2020 as part of an urban art festival involving more than 100 artists. They included a neon sculpture of the Chinese dissident and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died in 2017, and his wife, Liu Xia, as well as watercolor portraits that included Dr. Li Wenliang, who issued an early warning about the coronavirus and was then reprimanded by the Chinese authorities. He died in February 2020 after contracting the virus.
The exhibition in Brescia is a career retrospective featuring installations, oil paintings, drawings, sculptures and two scheduled performances.
The museum’s director, Stefano Karadjov, said the show was about “the discovery of an artist” who works in a variety of media but had been relegated to showing work online “because it was the only way he could do art, and have his art be seen.”
“A public museum should give space to those who don’t have a market,” Karadjov said, adding that he hoped it would stimulate further support for the artist.
Badiucao said he hoped the Brescia show would introduce him to a new audience and have his work seen in a new light.
“Certainly, when people come to a gallery or a museum the expectations are very different” than when works are seen online, he said. “An institution like that has inherent power and authority, so if you’re exhibiting in a space like this, you’re quite privileged.”
He understands, too, that he faces obstacles.
“To be an artist means you have to have exhibitions, you have to have galleries represent you, you have to be accepted in the mainstream art market, which for me obviously is very difficult because doing business with me means you’re refusing business with China,” he said.
But in Brescia, at least, he found support.
“We never thought for a moment about canceling the exhibit,” said Francesca Bazoli, the president of the Brescia Musei Foundation. “We believe in the role that contemporary art has as a powerful and inspiring instrument channeling themes that affirm freedom of expression,” she said. “We didn’t invite Badiucao because he was a dissident Chinese man, we invited him because he is an artist who shows us how art can be used as a critical tool. It was a cultural, not a political, operation.”