Communist leader takes over Barrister's Gallery
Friday, May 26, 2006
By Doug MacCash
'There's absolutely a sense of irony,"
said Victoria Edison of her collection of Mao Zedong
merchandise, now on display at Barrister's Gallery.
"If Mao knew what I'm doing, profiting from him,
he would probably turn over in his grave."
Edison was born 33 years ago in China's
Hunan province, Mao's birthplace. She was an exchange
student in the United States when the Tiananmen Square
massacre took place in 1989. She spoke out against
her government's violent crackdown on dissidents,
which made her a dissident too, unwelcome in her homeland.
"I could have gone home and been
in jail or stayed here and gone to college,"
she said by telephone from Berkeley, Calif.
In the 1990s the political climate had
changed sufficiently for Edison to visit her birthplace
once again. While strolling a flea market, she encountered
a college student selling Cold War propaganda posters
of the once widely revered, later largely reviled,
Chairman Mao (1893-1976). The artifacts (some vintage,
some contemporary Chinese knockoffs made for the Western
market) struck a chord with Edison, who describes
their politically contentious content as "forbidden
fruit." For Edison, the allure of Mao memorabilia
eventually turned "from a personal interest,
to a hobby, to a book."
Edison's illustrated collector's guide,
"The Cultural Revolution: Posters and Memorabilia,"
co-written with her husband James, was published in
January. She sells imported Mao stuff, as well as
bronze and concrete Buddhas at her shop in Berkeley.
Barrister's owner Andy Antippas discovered
Edison online while searching for the small pocket
copies of Mao quotes, universally known as the "little
red book." He'd intended to use them as source
material for an exhibit of tongue-in-cheek Mao-inspired
art, similar to his popular 2003 exhibit in which
New Orleans artists re-interpreted the bust of Vladimir
But Antippas was so taken with Edison's
collection that he felt artistic re-interpretation
was unnecessary. There was no reason to commission
artists to do something with Mao's head because, in
Antippas's words: "Mao had already commissioned
artists to do something with his head."
Indeed he did. The walls of Barrister's
are lined with stirring, mostly red posters featuring
the rotund face of Mao, smiling, smoking cigarettes,
stopping to smell the sunflowers, staring meaningfully
into the distance and otherwise offering inspiration
to the supplicant proletariat.
Nestled in a corner of the gallery is
a charming selection of Mao-oriented collectible ceramic
figures -- think commie Staffordshire. The little
dust-catchers are all wearing those endearing olive
drab and navy blue pajamas, and all are engaged in
patriotic activities such as humiliating captured
capitalists. Which is especially incongruent these
days, since economists believe China is on the verge
of becoming the next great capitalist world power.
If the Chinese do come to dominate the
global market, it will be because of their willingness
to work hard and work cheaply, as evidenced by the
nine hand-painted Mao portraits Antippas purchased
for a pittance (by art standards) from a Chinese art
factory. The portraits are presented as a Warholian
grid on the gallery wall. Each is identical except
for slight variations to the Chairman's mole or receding
hairline -- and a Duchampian graffiti mustache applied
by Julie Crozat to the Mao on the center right.
As Edison said: "There's absolutely
a sense of irony."
_________________________ MAO NOW A
CULTURAL REVOLUTION What: A collection of kitschy
Chinese Communist collectibles. Where: Barrister's
Gallery, 1724 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., (504) 525-2767.
When: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4, through
May. Prices: Posters from $49 to $125; ceramics from
$13 to $250; factory painted Mao portraits $80 to
$125 (for the one with the mustache).