Chinese embassy defends freedom of expression after fake travellers row

Images by Lucio Gino depict Chinese tourists on beaches, hotels and digging graves, provoking the ire of Beijing

A provocative art exhibition in Italy depicting Chinese tourists on beaches, hotels and even digging graves has provoked the ire of the Chinese embassy in Rome.

The collection of more than 40 images shows ordinary scenes used by visiting Chinese tourists in Italy – sunbathing, shopping and eating – but using widely-mocked caricatures of the visitors, with their accents hilariously flattened and faces replaced with cartoon animals.

The show, known as the Fresh Expressions exhibition in Florence, includes one of a Chinese tourist visiting Florence’s Uffizi gallery with the epithet “The Queen of the Painted Sculpture” inscribed on his forehead.

This same visitor is also seen sharing a restaurant meal with a huge pig, as well as a typical tourist scene, in which a Chinese man in a formal suit inspects the view from the roof of a particularly expensive villa.

Further images depict Chinese tourists packing tramcars and sitting at tables at a bar in a dishevelled Italian town.

An image of a Chinese man sitting on the toilet of a restaurant by Lucio Gino, curated by the gallery Argento, shows him holding a Chinese flag. Photograph: Vatican Museums

Several images – including the tourists’ lowered accents and the Chinese character Z (cheap) placed on their foreheads – show them all holding a rice cake, a local dish.

The exhibit, organised by a local artist named Lucio Gino, is intended to raise awareness of the multimillion-dollar industry of Chinese tourism to Italy, his title refers to the reception the Chinese tourists receive in Italian cities, which is often extremely heated.

Representatives of the Chinese embassy said they had protested about the display.

“There is no way that exhibitions depicting Chinese people in a negative way is legitimate art,” said an embassy spokesman.

Gino defended the exhibition, saying he wanted to challenge “those who intimidate people and create misunderstandings”.

The artist admitted he had permission to exhibit his art in the Chinese embassy, but said his work was taking place in an Italian gallery, and did not contain any defamatory symbols.

“They opened up in a gallery. I could have brought them there themselves,” he said.

A spokesman for the embassy said it had asked the gallery to remove the offending images, but they had refused. “They said it was perfectly clear that this art was free to display,” the spokesman said.

Songs by Chinese artist Guo Jin, seen as a homage to Brigitte Bardot. Photograph: Florence Italian Cultural Centre

The exhibition – set in a former Italian military barracks, which boasts that “it is the finest cultural space in the Florence and North-east area”, was also attacked by Italian leftists.

The Communist Left said it had threatened to block access to the exhibition because it was “anti-Chinese”.

According to a local newspaper, Puccio-San Clemente, a screen showing the protest banners was installed outside the building. It shows a construction worker removing a flagpole from the building before being chased away by rightwing protesters.

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