The removal of “objectionable” works of art is a commonplace event in the galleries of the Chinese capital, where a government that is wary of any political dissent keeps a close watch on artists and their work.
On Tuesday, however, one of Beijing’s most well-known art galleries received a censorship request of a different kind: it was told to remove a work deemed “offensive” not by the Communist Party’s censors, but by the Indian government officials.
The “Indian Highway” contemporary art show, curated by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist of London’s Serpentine Gallery, has been displayed in more than four countries since its 2008 inauguration in the British capital, travelling to Oslo, Lyon and Rome.
The show opened in Beijing on June 23. The biggest ever display of Indian art in China, it has attracted more than a thousand visitors daily and as many as 10,000 guests on one weekend, according to organisers and Indian officials.
But after a media report on Tuesday pointed out that one of the exhibits of the show, which showcases more than 200 works by 29 artists and has been running for one month, included a four-minute video installation that featured interviews, discussing the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, the Indian government told the host gallery in Beijing to remove the installation.
Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials told reporters in New Delhi that the video, which had “random interviews” with Indian youth, had some “politically controversial overtones.” “The MEA took it up with the organisers who have removed the clip,” the officials told a briefing.
The 2003 video by Tejal Shah, called “I Love My India,” focuses, according to a description by the Serpentine Gallery, on “the ignorance and lack of understanding of the genocide against the Muslim minority in Gujarat in 2002.”
The video on Gujarat was not displayed when the show was inaugurated by Indian Ambassador S. Jaishankar in Beijing on June 23.
The organisers had, at the opening, cited technical problems with some of the installations. But other videos displaying the troubles in the Northeast and abuses by the Indian Army were displayed at the opening.
When asked about the videos at the inauguration, Indian officials pointed out that as the show was privately curated by the Serpentine Gallery, they neither sought to give their consent nor look to formally approve of the works of art.
Officials said they wanted to show the Chinese audiences the diversity of opinion in democratic India.
The Indian government’s involvement, the officials added, was only limited to covering the air fares of two artists – photographer Dayanita Singh and sculptor Sudarshan Shetty – who travelled to Beijing for the inauguration. Most of the show’s costs were being borne by the privately-run Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), one of the Beijing’s most prominent art galleries.
Philip Tinari, UCCA’s director, could not be reached for comment on why the gallery removed the exhibit. The Serpentine Gallery in London had not yet responded to queries sent by The Hindu on Tuesday.