‘China: June 4, 1989’ Exhibition Revived

After the Asian American Arts Centre announcement. Front row: Zhang Hongtu (second from the left) and Robert Lee (center); back row: Fengsuo Zhou (center). (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing)

The New York-based Asian American Arts Centre (AAAC) announced on March 6 that it has decided to hand over more than a hundred artworks inspired by the June Fourth Incident (Tiananmen Square protests) in its collection to Humanitarian China (HC). The California-based human rights organization plans to host a traveling exhibition for the art in major U.S. cities to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the student democracy movement in China in 1989, and eventually build the first permanent June Fourth museum in the U.S. to house these works and other related objects.

After the crackdown that took place at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989, Robert Lee, executive director of the AAAC called for artists around the world to create works based on their reflection of the incident so that the historical event could be memorialized via art. Hundreds of artists participated and all together they created more than 300 art pieces, some of which were shown in the U.S. and Hong Kong in the 1990s in a traveling exhibition organized by Lee called “China: June 4, 1989.”

Lee said about 130 works were kept through the years by the AAAC, but a funding shortage has more or less put the exhibition on hold. The last time it was on show was in 2014 in downtown Manhattan for the 25th anniversary of the movement, the only time when the AAAC received a donation for the exhibition.

“Many businesses pulled out from China after June Fourth. But none of them worked with us. They still wanted to do business with China,” Lee said.

For a while, Lee was worried about the fate of the works until he was introduced to the HC, an organization founded by Fengsuo Zhou, Zhao Jing and Gang Xu, student leaders of the movement. Zhou said the HC plans to bring the works to major U.S. cities through the spring, and they will arrive at Los Angeles on June 4 for an exhibition at Liberty Sculpture Park for the anniversary. The HC also plans to use these works as seeds for building a June Fourth museum in the U.S.

“This museum will [also] collect and display other valuable historical objects and artworks against censorship and forced amnesia,” Zhou said.

But the meaning of these works may extend beyond the incident that happened in China three decades ago. Among the pieces is a replica of Zhang Hongtu’s “Last Banquet,” a reimagining of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” with the faces of Jesus and his disciples all replaced by Mao Zedong. When the original work was selected together with several others from the collection by Lee for a 1990 exhibition in Washington D.C. to commemorate the movement, Sen. Ted Kennedy called it sacrilegious and forced the organizer to drop the work.

“Last Banquet” by Zhang Hongtu

“I was shocked,” said Zhang, who moved to the U.S. from China in 1982. “I came to the U.S. to pursue freedom of art. To my surprise, the censorship here was also tight. I wrote a statement afterward, and the title was ‘Do I have to go up to the moon to do art?’”

“The censorship has continued in the U.S.,” said Lee, who had decided to withdraw all the works he recommended from the D.C. exhibition after Zhang’s work was banned in protest. “Something we need to keep in mind is that this (the artworks) is not just about China. This is about all human life.”

Rong Xiaoqing is a 2019 fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation.