Through March 1, Columbia’s Italian Academy will exhibit the work of contemporary Chinese photographer Liu Xia for the first time in the United States.
Despite the exhibit’s tremendous importance to both her career and to the promotion of Chinese art worldwide, Xia does not know about it. Though Xia has not been charged with or convicted of any crime, she has been under house arrest, prevented from communicating with the outside world (with the occasional exception of her mother), since January 2010.
Xia is no stranger to the Chinese legal system. Her husband is Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for advocating for democratic reform in China.
However, it would be wrong to call Xia’s exhibit, appropriately titled “The Silent Strength of Xia,” simply a political statement, according to Guy Sorman, the curator of the exhibition and the man responsible for bringing Xia’s work to Columbia.
“I would not define her as a political artist, I would define her as an artist,” said Sorman. “I would say that it is an unintended consequence of her work if it has political consequences or a political tone.”
The exhibit consists of 25 photographs arranged in two rooms. The photographs are all black and white and were all taken at Xia’s home, using an old-fashioned camera without any additional lighting.
Sorman was the man who initially discovered Xia’s photography. According to Sorman, Xia is very shy and was initially reluctant to exhibit her photography because she did not want to distract from her husband’s political work.
“I went into their bedroom by accident, and her photos were on the bed and on the ground. It was a whole artistic universe surging out of nowhere.”
Though Xia gave her consent to Sorman in September 2010, she insisted that she did not want to know that her work was being displayed. Her work is censored in China, and if asked whether or not she has knowledge of the exhibit, she wants to be able to honestly answer no.
Xia’s subjects are a series of dolls she aptly calls “ugly babies.” The dolls’ expressions are mangled with pain and torment and represent the suffering of the Chinese people repressed by their government.
According to Sorman, in addition to their political connotations, these dolls appear ethnically ambiguous. “The dolls are universal in a way,” says Sorman. “Their suffering is universal. The Chinese are not just Chinese. They are human beings.”
According to Sorman, Columbia seemed like an ideal place for the first American exhibit of Xia’s work. After the first French exhibit, Sorman wanted an exhibit in New York, and Columbia fit the bill.
“I wanted a place with an academic and artistic dimension. It couldn’t be a commercial gallery, because this art is not for sale. It couldn’t be a place too politicized. Columbia University was perfect.”
Sorman said that “The Silent Strength of Xia” functions on two levels: It is a testament both to the agony of China and to the creativity of China.
“What I’d like to do with the exhibit is show that there is a lively Chinese society that is completely apart from what you usually read about China and hear about China,” said Sorman.
“This society is suffering but also creating.”