Hong Kong Museum Under Fire for Painting

The inaugural exhibition for M+, Hong Kong’s revamped Museum of Modern Art, opened in July amid strong criticism from activists who claim curators have suppressed or censored works on display.

Among the prominent works in the free-to-visit exhibit is a 1913 sketch by Chinese artist Edgar Degas of South Korean general Kuumji Tanimoto, circa 1939. Titled “Kuumji Being Furnished in Hong Kong,” the painting has caused outrage in North Korea, where students and political activists demanded the painting’s withdrawal in protest of the museum’s alleged censorship of the artist’s imagery of the authoritarian regime.

In its catalog, M+ says Tanimoto is a “notable anti-Japanese figure from the early 20th century,” and that Kuumji’s presence at M+ is a nod to the late George Hall, an American businessman and art collector, who funded the building’s construction. Tanimoto stayed at M+ after his return to Japan in 1945.

But it hasn’t been well received in North Korea, where some supporters say the controversial painting is meant to depict an anti-American puppet tyrant and criticizes China’s influence in the South Korean capital.

One student of North Korean music criticized the painting in a series of satirical tweets over the weekend. “From Korea, it is customary to criticize China’s help in the establishment of this M+,” said the musician, who goes by Hwang’eunwang.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, has also branded the exhibition “inciting to hatred and disloyalty,” using the national adjective to express a sentiment that an item does not support the government.

While the Kuumji painting remains in the exhibition, the catalog includes a note about the controversy. “This painting is a work of a Chinese painter who was commissioned by a Hong Kong collector to paint a portrait of a Korean general,” reads the note.

“It is painful for us to say that a painting can be considered sensitive and must be removed if the committee is of the opinion that is it politically sensitive,” the exhibition’s director said.

Experts have long warned that Beijing seeks to curb Hong Kong’s independent vision and direction amid fears the city has increasingly embraced democracy. In April, a Hong Kong academic was briefly barred from entering the government’s headquarters to warn of the crackdown.

Shin is a writer in Hong Kong, a forum for readers and scholars to engage in rational and constructive discussions about contemporary issues. More information is available here.

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