ALHAMBRA, Calif. — Artists featured in a Chinese New Year exhibit at City Hall removed their works in anger over the city's banishment of a piece depicting communist dictator Mao Zedong next to George Washington.
The remaining 30 silk-screen prints were taken down by the artists on Feb. 20 after city staff removed a Jeffrey Ma piece pairing Mao and Washington. It was pulled because some observers found it offensive, the city said.
"They don't respect art and they don't respect artists," Ma said.
Ma and the three other artists in the exhibit decided to take everything down after the city balked at putting the Mao piece back up. The artists also retrieved the Mao piece stored in the City Clerk's office.
Four Chinese-American artists paid homage to Andy Warhol in the exhibit, which was scheduled to run through February.
"If this place is not interested in us, we are not interested in this place," artist John Kong said. "I understand people can have strong personal reactions to certain things. It's not wrong to express what he thinks when he sees this art.
"The wrong thing is that City Hall took the piece down."
It was described as "innocent, thoughtless censorship, but censorship nonetheless" by Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition.
"The appropriate response is not to suppress the original speech, but rather to encourage more expression so that the public is exposed to all these points of view," Scheer said.
It wasn't clear who made the decision to take the Mao piece down. City Clerk Frances Moore said there was a complaint and the Ma piece was removed Feb. 15 "at the direction" of organizer Pinki Chen.
"She wanted it down. They didn't want controversy," Moore said.
But Chen said city staff simply notified her as a courtesy.
"They called me and asked me if it was OK. I told them, 'It's your decision'... I would never say we should take it down because of a couple of people," Chen said.
Alhambra resident Henry Zhang, 41, says Mao is China's equivalent of Adolf Hitler and his portrait should not be displayed in public buildings. "He took away other people's freedom," Zhang said.
"I can't believe I came to America to seek freedom, to see that hanging in the City Hall lobby," said Kai Chen, 51, a Los Angeles resident who emigrated from China in 1981. "It is unbelievably politically ignorant, politically insensitive to say the least."
The print was taken down after the city received Kai Chen's complaint.
Pinki Chen said the only criteria for the artwork was a tie-in with the Year of the Boar.
The print by Ma imposes Mao and Washington's images onto four piggy banks. Their images were chosen because their faces are found on money, said Qing Nian Tang, an artist whose work was also in the exhibit.
Two other pieces show the Red Army with pig's heads, wielding paintbrushes and bayonets.
Mayor Stephen Sham, who was born in China, said last week that he was not offended by the print.
"It's an art exhibit — it's not a history exhibit," Sham said. "I think we have freedom of speech."
Alhambra is 10 miles east of Los Angeles.