November 10, 2011 / 6:19 AM / 8 years ago

"Ugly Babies": Art of jailed Nobel-winner Liu's wife

PARIS (Reuters) - Chinese artist Liu Xia never expected her disturbing photographs to be shown beyond the walls of her Beijing apartment. In China, she is a forbidden artist, living in the shadow of her jailed husband, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

A protester holds a mug featuring an image of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia outside Hong Kong's Legislative Council December 8, 2010, before several lawmakers leave for Oslo to attend the Nobel Prize presentation ceremony. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files

For the first time, 26 of her photos, spirited out of China, are being exhibited in a small showroom on the outskirts of Paris.

In summer 2010, Guy Sorman, a French author and economist who visited her many times, persuaded the quiet woman to opt for a public viewing abroad.

Despite being a world premiere, the show, which has been open for more than two weeks in a relatively obscure showroom in the western Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, has gone almost unnoticed by the general public.

Sorman attributes the absence of a higher-profile premiere to France’s complicated relationship with China.

After threatening to boycott the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing over a crackdown in Tibet, French president Nicolas Sarkozy has spent years trying to mend diplomatic relations with China.


Outside of China, Liu Xia is mostly known as Liu Xiaobo’s wife.

Prominent in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and in the writing of several petitions calling for democratic reform, Liu Xiaobo was jailed in late 2009 for subversion of state power and for being the lead author of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reform in the one-party state.

Liu Xia has largely lost contact with foreign supporters and journalists since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize. Since the award, she has lived under heavy security and been allowed little contact with the outside world.

Shaven-headed Liu Xia is in some ways an unusual match for her outspoken and often acerbic husband, but has stood by his decision to help organize the Charter 08 petition drive for democratic change that triggered his arrest.

“She hesitated a lot about showing her photos”, said Sorman, who said he had to talk her into the idea of an exhibition. “She thought it was a very personal work that wasn’t worth much.”

After obtaining the photos from her in the summer of 2010, he maintained communication via her mother and got approval to showcase the work.


The unsettling series of black-and-white photos show rag dolls that Liu Xia calls her “ugly babies”, and according to Sorman, speak reams about conditions in China.

“All these dolls are mute they let out a muffled scream”, said Sorman. They were, he said, “the Chinese people, and sometimes Liu Xia and her husband”.

One photo pictures four dolls pinned under sheer plastic film. Another shows two idle dolls staring vacantly over a giant ashtray full of cigarette ends.

“It is almost a prisoner’s work”, said Sorman.

“Liu Xia never had a proper studio, and we can see that her artwork is homespun: she uses a very old camera, she develops her photos at home with extremely limited technical means and her dolls are made of rag and wax heads that someone brought her from Brazil.”

Called “The silent strength of Liu Xia”, the exhibition in Boulogne-Billancourt has not received the attention Guy Sorman expected and he blames that in part on a cold shoulder from French officialdom.

In a recent article in Le Figaro newspaper, Sorman lamented the fact that French Culture minister Frederic Mitterand declined an invitation to attend.

“Behind his ‘busy schedule’, we know the minister is scared of offending Beijing,” he wrote.

The no-show was purely a scheduling conflict, according to officials at the ministry, however.

“France is the country that is the most indifferent to human rights in China”, said Sorman, who says he hopes the exhibition will generate greater enthusiasm when it moves on, first to the campus of Columbia University in the United States and later to Madrid and Prague.

“The great exhibition of Liu Xia, I regret to say, will take place in New York”, said Sorman.

Reporting with Chris Buckley in Beijing: editing by Brian Love and Paul Casciato

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