Politically sensitive art and the colours of censorship


Where does politically sensitive work fit in the art world? Ysabelle Cheung looks at the history of art censorship in Burma, China and Hong Kong, brought to light due to recent events

"Why red?” It’s a question innocuous enough, something an art lover might ask the artist about a particular work or painting. But from 1964 up until three years ago, the questioner could have well been a member of the Burmese censorship board. If the artist answered to the official’s satisfaction – who would usually be a military man with no knowledge of art – the art was allowed to be shown to the public. If not, an official stamp of censorship was put upon the work, banishing it to the confines of the artist’s studio.

Red was dangerous, as in the government’s eyes it represented blood and revolution. Black (depression) was also dodgy, as was white (reminiscent of Aung San Suu Kyi’s white flowers) and nudity. For the first time though, a collection of 50 of these censored paintings − created between 1962 and 2011 – are to be displayed in the upcoming exhibition, Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship, in Hong Kong. “At the time the artists had to display their works outside of their home country – Thailand, Singapore,” mentions co-curator Melissa Carlson. Professor of political science at HKU and co-curator Ian Holliday also comments: “There was no more than a very small art market in Myanmar during that period. Many of the artists could not live as artists.” Now, work from that period mostly fits into museums and galleries in other South East Asian countries, aside from Burma.

Although censorship laws have relaxed due to the opening of the country three years ago, the reverberations of a suppressed art culture are still prevalent. “Most artists are not really pushing the envelope, even now,” says Holliday. “When you look at what’s actually going on with Buddhist Muslims now and the violence, there’s scarcely any art to do with that. Artists feel like they can’t comment. And after all these years of control and censorship, that’s understandable, but if artists don’t push the envelope – who will?”

The same year Burma enforced its 1964 censorship regime, China’s Cultural Revolution rolled into motion. Mao Zedong listed creatives as ‘reactionary bourgeois authorities’. While the Burmese focused solely on censorship, the Communist Party also initiated an era of propaganda art – work that depicted happy, red-cheeked rural citizens in contrast to the oppressive regime. Three under-the-radar art groups also sprung from that period: No Name, Stars (which Ai Weiwei was part of) and Grass. Postrevolution, art from those groups mostly by Mainland buyers.

Shi Xinning's 'Grace Kelly'

“Art from the Cultural Revolution is very specific, almost like another form of art in itself,” explains Alexi Fung, newly appointed managing director of Bonhams Hong Kong. “It’s not common to collect from that period, but the few buyers that are interested usually have a personal connection to the Cultural Revolution.” He mentions that contemporary art reflecting on the Revolution fares better in auctions and is popular across Western and Asia markets. “We look at how an artist uses his brush to represent the world we’re living in,” he says, explaining Bonhams’ philosophy. “A lot of artists nowadays paint Mao Zedong in their work; it’s their way of projecting their views on the Cultural Revolution. That work is highly collectable.” Bonhams is hosting a Fine Chinese Paintings and Contemporary Asian Art auction on November 23, notably featuring five works with Mao as a central theme.

Dino Perry painting the 'Lennon Wall' in Admiralty

And what of Hong Kong, current converging place for displaying both previously censored Burmese art and reflective contemporary art discussing the Cultural Revolution? Today’s hotly debated topic is whether the materials within Occupy Central should be physically archived for future generations. Government and museum authorities in Hong Kong have yet to set up an official collection, whether digital or physical, although several grassroots groups in the city have pre-emptively begun requesting spaces, vans and boxes to store the artwork of Occupy. “For the most part, I’m not sure if the material within the protest was created as just artwork,” says Meg Maggio, founder of Pekin Fine Arts who has been observing the protests. “I think the work falls more into the category of street art or political cartooning – which shows Hong Kong’s propensity to create such interesting work – but I think to remove the work from the street strips them of their immediacy and relevance. I think they should stay exactly where they are, on the street.” The topic is of particular interest to Maggio, whose role at Pekin Fine Arts is to provide a platform for their cast of artists, regardless of trajectory or topic. “We follow artists who are deeply sensitive to the changes around them and who are socially conscious,” she says. “It’s arbitrary to divide art up by political subject. We follow the voices of the artists, wherever they may lead us, political or otherwise.”

Felis Simha's 'Mr Lion'

Holliday, like others, holds a different opinion. “We’ve seen art from the socialist revolution disappear or been destroyed,” he says of the process of collecting for Banned in Burma, suggesting that the art of Occupy should be kept and then divvied up in museums. Carlson adds: “What’s so fascinating about Banned in Burma is that each piece captures a moment in Myanmar’s history. I would hate to think of not collecting Occupy artwork, as it is a part of Hong Kong’s history.” For now, the future of Occupy material is unclear. Perhaps, twenty years down the line, we shall see the results of a city shook by politics in auction houses. After all, history tends to repeat itself.

Banned in Burma Visual Arts Ctr, Nov 29-Dec 1, fb.com/bannedinburma; Fine Chinese Paintings and Contemporary Asian Art Suite 2001, Pacific Place, Sun Nov 23, bonhams.com; Pekin Fine Arts pekinfinearts.com.

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