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Queens Chronicle

At library, expression vs. sensitivity

Painting including China’s Mao removed from exhibit over viewer complaints

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Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2014 10:30 am | Updated: 11:20 am, Thu Feb 27, 2014.

There is one week left to see the works of an ambitious painter that are on display in the Flushing Library’s gallery. But patrons will not be able to see one of artist Ken Ho’s personal favorites, “We Speak Out.” The library had him take it down after receiving complaints about its imagery.

“We Speak Out” features the leaders of both sides in World War II at a table, with images of the conflict behind them and flowers in front of them. Leaders of the Allied Powers, including U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, are on one side, and those of the Axis, including German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, are on the other. In between is Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong.

The figures are posed in roughly the same way Jesus Christ and the apostles are in Renaissance master Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper,” one of the most recognizable paintings in the Western world. Mao, though somewhat closer to the Allies than the enemy Axis powers, to reflect history correctly, is in the center, taking the place of Christ.

And that did not sit well with some library patrons who saw the painting when the exhibit opened Feb. 7, so the library had Ho take it down.

The artist was disappointed. His son, Edward He, was furious.

For Ho, art is not a hobby but a calling, and he hopes the world will one day recognize his talents and consider him a master. “We Speak Out” is one of his most treasured works.

In an interview with the Queens Chronicle, one that at times was challenging because Ho immigrated here from China and his vocabulary in English is limited, he explained that the message in “We Speak Out” is one of peace.

“What happened with the Second [World] War is that the Japanese leader never sat down to negotiate,” Ho said. “I was thinking of war and peace. My idea is they could have ended the war before with negotiation. I wish they had sat down to negotiate and turned the war into something beautiful.”

That “something beautiful,” peace, is represented by the flowers.

Mao, the Communist chairman responsible for tens of millions of Chinese deaths, was a strong leader, Ho said, and that’s why he is in the center. Though he recognized that Chinese Communists did some “very bad” things, Ho said they also did some good things. He did, however, leave his home near Shanghai for a better opportunity here. He lives in Corona.

While Ho was disappointed his painting came down, he didn’t argue the point. But his son, a pre-med student, blasted the library, calling the move censorship and un-American.

The library said in response that Ho, like any artist who gets to show his works there, signed an agreement recognizing that a painting could be removed if it causes discomfort.

“The library is not an art gallery,” spokeswoman Joanne King said.

City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing), agreed in a statement emailed to the Chronicle. Koo cited the importance of freedom of expression here but said no one hampered Ho’s First Amendment rights, saying, “there are more appropriate venues than a public library for this type of provocative art work.”

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), chairman of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations, declined to comment.

Several other paintings by Ho, including one called “Journey,” depicting Tibetan refugees, and his other favorite, “The Dream,” which symbolically melds Western and Chinese art, will be on display at the library until Feb. 27. His next exhibit will be at United Nations headquarters in November. He can be reached at edition0224591@yahoo.com.

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