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Kitschy Communist leader takes over Barrister's Gallery

Friday, May 26, 2006
By Doug MacCash
Art critic

'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 Lenin.

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).



 
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