An Australian gallery has removed three artworks critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after a group of Chinese students complained the pieces were racist.
The Ambush Gallery at the Australian National University (ANU) is hosting the “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” exhibition by artist Luke Cornish which features 54 commentary artworks on “injustice and protest” around the world.
Some works depicted the injustices of indigenous Australians, while others show the Black Lives Matter movement in America. However, works relating to China received what Cornish describes as a coordinated attack on social media.
“I was just getting smashed on Instagram and social media; I think the gallery were getting smashed too,” Cornish told the ABC. “It was such a bullying mentality, so the gallery made the call to take the artworks down.”
One of the removed artworks showed an image of the 10 renminbi (RMB) banknote with former communist dictator Mao Zedong dressed as batman. Another showed Winnie the Pooh strangling Tigger and the final one showed Mao’s face overlayed with facial recognition software markers.
Cornish apologised for the batman artwork, a satire piece on the theories of the origins of the CCP virus, saying it could be perceived as discriminatory.
However, he questioned the removal of the other two, which were illustrations depicting the genocide of the Uyghur people and the social credit system.
“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,” Cornish said.
The gallery apologised “for any hurt displaying the artwork caused” after it was notified of student complaints by ANU’s International Student Department (ISD).
“As a social enterprise, we strive to present art that upholds all communities and are deeply sorry for any offence caused to members of the community,” the gallery wrote in an email to ANUISD.
“The artist’s objective was not to feed into destructive narratives, but to call out the racism experienced by the Chinese community and the absurdity of racist stories around the virus origin,” they said.
The ISD also noted it had asked the gallery to remove the Batman artwork due to its “detrimental nature.” However, they had not requested the removal of the other two which were taken down.
A spokesman for the gallery told South China Morning Post that the gallery had taken down the other two works without considering how that might be perceived. They also denied any intention of censorship, saying they also showed several other works which supported Uyghur and Hong Kong’s anti-government protests.
Concerns around Chinese students imposing Beijing standards of censorship on Australian education institutions have grown over recent years.
The University of Sydney was recently accused of self-censoring when its student-run newspaper removed an article about the ties of its academics to the CCP.
Last year, student Drew Pavlou was also suspended by the University of Queensland after he attended Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.