Artworks Removed From aMBUSH Gallery Following Allegations of Racism
A previous article covering this topic was removed by the Observer Editorial Board. Full statement available here.
By Keeley Dickinson and Jemima Adams
Content warning: This article contains discussion of racism, Sinophobia and xenophobia
Last week three artworks by Luke Cornish, who also goes by E.L.K, were removed from the aMBUSH Gallery following a discrimination complaint by the International Students Department (ISD) about one of the pieces.
The removed artworks – CNY#1, CNY#2, and CNY#3 – were part of a series by Cornish depicting graffitied Chinese banknotes. In a statement to Observer, Cornish stated the purpose of his exhibition was “to call out abuse of power, and start conversations about that abuse”.
The artwork accused of racism was CNY#1, which Cornish intended to be “a humorous attempt to highlight the stupidity of conspiracy theories in general”. The artwork depicted a graffitied Chinese bank note depicting Mao Zedong wearing a Batman mask. The accompanying description to the artwork stated:
“A shout out to the man that ate the bat in a Wuhan wet market that stopped the fuxking world (which probably didn’t happen)”.
The ISD organised a meeting with the aMBUSH Gallery and Kambri managers after receiving two formal email complaints, and multiple informal and verbal complaints. In their original statement on the issue, the ISD expressed that “the artwork [CNY#1] should have no place in our community”, emphasising that “racism and discrimination is unacceptable and it will always be”.
In correspondence between the Gallery and the ISD, the Gallery apologised for “any hurt displaying these works have caused”. The Gallery also stated a decision to remove all three artworks, explaining that “both the artist and aMBUSH understand the experience of the artwork has not reflected the artist’s intention” to “call out” racist narratives and highlight global issues.
In a statement to Observer, Cornish said the art was “certainly never intended to be conceived as racist”, continuing that he had been “naive to” and “completely unaware” of the racist attacks experienced by Chinese and other Asian individuals since the onset of the pandemic.
Cornish said that he was “happy” that CNY#1 was removed, noting that he “[hates] the thought of [his] work hurting people on that level”.
In a Facebook post since, the ISD has clarified that the Department only requested the removal of CNY#1, not CNY#2 or CNY#3. However, all three artworks were removed by the Gallery. The ISD stated that they were “surprised” to hear that the other two works were removed. The Department expressed that they “absolutely” encourage and support political freedom, stating that they act as the representative body for all international students at ANU with no political affiliations or opinions.
CNY#2 depicted a Chinese banknote with a facial recognition scan laid over the face of Mao Zedong. Cornish told Observer that the artwork sought to highlight “the unfairness of China’s Social Credit System”.
CNY#3 featured children’s character Winnie the Pooh choking Tigger – a reference to memes which mock President Xi Jinping. The artwork was accompanied with the description:
“The Chinese President blocked Winnie the Pooh in the country to prevent people from comparing him with Winnie the Pooh. This work discusses China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims”.
In a statement to Observer, an ANU spokesperson emphasised that the aMBUSH Gallery is a commercial tenant unaffiliated with the University, and that “neither the artwork nor the exhibition were commissioned by ANU”. The Spokesperson further stated that ANU “is a community that fosters respectful debate and robust scholarship and the free exchange of diverse ideas”.
The University encourages students who may have experienced distress as a result of this incident to reach out to support services available here.
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