Cary officials offer to put artwork critical of China back up, extend exhibit

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Nearly three weeks after removing three pieces of artwork critical of the Chinese government, the town of Cary has offered to reinstall the paintings and extend the exhibit through the end of the month.

In an e-mail obtained by ABC11, Cary Cultural Arts Manager Lyman Collins made the offer to Durham-based artist Bing Weng on Wednesday morning.

A town spokesperson said the artist had not formally responded as of 11 a.m., though Weng told ABC11 she planned on putting the art back up today.

The issue first arose late last month, as part of a larger art exhibit displayed in the town's Senior Center.

The exhibit, called "Blooming Life," primarily includes portraits of nature and flowers. However, three paintings were critical of the Chinese government, particularly President Xi Jinping.

"(She) thinks the Chinese government is doing a lot of things that are not good, so she is inspired by that," said Anzhi Chen, Weng's daughter, who served as a translator during our interview.

Weng said she would not have been able to express herself in this manner in China.

"(She)'s angry, and she wants to fight against it and exhibit (the paintings)," Chen said.

In her initial application, Weng did not include the three portraits, saying she had not started working on them at the time. This was noted in an e-mail exchange on January 25th between Weng and Denise Dickens, Cary's Public Art and Exhibition Supervisor.

"I reviewed your 2018 application, images and artist bio and nothing gave us any indication that you would be submitting for exhibition paintings political in nature," Dickens wrote, adding the review panel's discussion focused on "high quality of your painting and beauty of your flowers."

Dickens acknowledged Weng's frustration with the situation, but noted the "Town maintains the right to curate the exhibitions in our public facilities."

She further said that the "Senior Center is not a fine arts museum or even a typical gallery space where people come in expecting to be challenged by political content or themes. Instead, the patrons expect to be given a glimpse of a talented artist's work that may make them think about taking an art class."

Weng, who was not paid as part of this exhibit, said a town official noted the artwork drew a complaint from a patron.

The National Coalition Against Censorship, a New York-based advocacy organization, learned about Weng's case and reached out to town officials on Monday, urging them to reinstall the paintings.

"It seems ironic that a Chinese citizen that came to the U.S. in order to more easily exercise her freedom of speech and her free expression would be shut down in this way," said Joy Garnett, the Arts Advocacy Program Associate with NCAC, told ABC11 Tuesday afternoon.

Late Tuesday, an NCAC spokesperson said a town official promised to consider the issue carefully. Weng credited the NCAC for the town's decision to reverse its decision.

The exhibit was initially set to end on Friday; instead Weng said the artwork will be on display until February 25th.

Weng moved to the United States in 2016, citing her frustration with the government. She has been an artist since 2002.

"They weren't part of the initial application. When artists are reviewed, they submit 10 slides and the expectation is the art would be consistent," Collins said.

Collins cited a language barrier between the sides leading to a miscommunication as part of the reason behind the town's decision to allow Weng to reinstall the three pieces and extend the exhibit.

"This will give her confidence about the free speech in the United States," Chen said about Cary's offer.

Weng reinstalled the three paintings Wednesday afternoon.
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