BRESCIA, ITALY (AFP) – Exhibiting a torture instrument as an innocent rocking chair, Chinese dissident artist Badiucao mocks the propaganda of Beijing in a new show – while appropriating its codes.

Defying calls from the Chinese government to cancel it, the northern Italian city of Brescia is hosting the first international solo exhibition by the 35-year-old artist and exile from China who lives in Australia.

Badiucao’s works are “full of anti-Chinese lies” that “jeopardise the friendly relations between China and Italy”, Beijing’s embassy in Rome said in a letter sent last month to Brescia’s town hall.

But the city stood its ground.

“None of us in Brescia, neither in the city council nor among the citizens, had the slightest doubt about this exhibition going ahead,” Deputy Mayor Laura Castelletti told AFP.

Brescia, known for its Roman ruins, has a long tradition of welcoming dissidents, painters and writers, in the “defence of artistic freedom”, she said.

The last was in 2019, with the works of Kurdish artist Zehra Dogan, who spent nearly three years in jail in Turkey.

The new show, “China is (not) near – works of a dissident artist”, which opened Friday, denounces political repression in China and the country’s censorship of the origins of the Coronavirus, two explosive subjects for Beijing.

The exhibit, whose title is an allusion to a famous Italian film from 1967, “China Is Near”, runs until Feb 13 at the Santa Giulia museum.

In an interview with AFP, Badiucao – who has been called “the Chinese Banksy” – said he was “very happy and proud” that the city “had the courage to say ‘no’ to China to defend fundamental rights”.

Plans for a Hong Kong show in 2018 fell through after pressure on the artist and his entourage, said the bespectacled Badiucao, who sports a long, shaggy beard.

“The national security police went to intimidate my family in Shanghai,” he said, adding they threatened to “send officers” to the opening if the exhibit were held.

The Chinese Communist Party “thinks that all free artists are its enemies, that’s why it hates me so much,” said Badiucao, who added that he receives “daily death threats” on social media.

Due to heavy censorship, he said he only learned decades later as a university student studying law in China about the government’s brutal 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Badiucao poses next to his artwork entitled “Carrie Lam, 2018”, on Nov 12, 2021 at the exhibition “China is (not) near – works of a dissident artist”, opening at the Santa Giulia museum in Brescia, Lombardy. PHOTO: AFP
Badiucao poses next to his artwork entitled “Carrie Lam, 2018”, on Nov 12, 2021 at the exhibition “China is (not) near – works of a dissident artist”, opening at the Santa Giulia museum in Brescia, Lombardy. PHOTO: AFP

He decided to dedicate himself to art, moving to Australia in 2009 and only revealing his identity publically on its 30th anniversary a decade later.

The exhibition also pays tribute to “Tank Man”, the unknown man wearing a white shirt and carrying two plastic shopping bags who stood up to advancing tanks.

In a nod to current events, the tanks remodelled by Badiucao are topped by balls resembling the Covid-19 virus under a microscope.

Hung on one of the museum’s walls are pages from a diary of a resident of Wuhan, epicentre of the pandemic, who managed to circumvent the censorship to recount his daily life at the start of the confinement.

The dissident said there is no doubt Beijing is responsible for the pandemic, alleging that it failed to heed warnings over the coronavirus’ first appearance in Wuhan in late 2019.

The exhibition “has no intention of offending the Chinese people or Chinese culture and civilisation”, the president of the Brescia Museums Foundation, Francesca Bazoli, said.

In showing these works, she added, “we support freedom of expression”.