AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Sadie Hill

Sadie Hill Exhibition Theme

Zhang Hongtu is a Chinese artist living and working in Queens, New York. He was young at the beginning of the cultural revolution in Beijing. Members of his family lost jobs and were killed as a result of his being muslim and overall violence of that political era, so Mao and the cultural revolution heavily influences his work. Zhang’s style is contemporary with a pop art technique. I was drawn to his art because of the humor that radiates from his works. His portfolio is fun and funny with a flare that we only just started seeing from some of the modernism we are looking at in class which makes sense because Zhang made many of his works in the 1980’s. I also like the sense of rebellion his art portrays as the portraits and sculptures he creates are of highly controversial and oftentimes taboo topics that would likely be seen differently if viewed in china rather than America.

For my exhibition, I would like to highlight the work Zhang Hongtu does in relation to the image of Mao. In class we studied the importance and historical significance of Mao’s image; how it has been policed and micromanaged ever since he came into power. Zhang Hongtu has many images of Mao that he made throughout the 80s and 90s. I would like to take some images of Mao made by Zhang Hongtu, and some made by other sanctioned artists (Mao’s Tiannamen portrait, portraits painted by the red guards, portraits allowed by Zhang’s wife) and juxtapose them in the same space. The goal is to reveal how an image of a person changes when there is complete artistic freedom versus when the artist is confined to the rules and regulations of a certain regime.

Below, I’ve included one image of Mao by Zhang Hongtu, and the current painting of Mao Zedong inn Tiananmen Square. The portrait by Zhang is called “Mao After Picasso” and it is from 2012. I plan on placing these two images adjacent to each other in a very prominent area of the exhibit. I think they show exactly what I am looking to portray in this exhibit. Because of the colors, angles, expressions and overall compositions, these are two completely different Mao’s. When walking around this exhibit, I hope the audience would question not only Mao Zedong, but leaders and politicians in their own life and how imagery sanctioned by those in power changes their perspective of the person. Because, even something as simple as the shape of their face, can completely change a persons persona.


“Q. and A.: The Artist Zhang Hongtu on Appropriating Mao’s Image.” New York Times, March 21st, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/asia/zhang-hongtu-artist-mao-china.html


Sadie Interesting Link


In this link, we get an inside look into Zhang Hongtu’s apartment in Queens, New York. I really liked this article because it was extremely personal. His apartment has a studio, which is why he bought it. In this interview, Zhang takes the interviewer on a tour of his home. He stops to point out photographs of him and his wife in China before they immigrated, and discusses how his wife landscaped their backyard. His house has big wooden doors in a Japanese style, and he discusses how the air in his space feels fresh and calming. He has books of his own art on his coffee table.

I chose this article to talk about because it is a side of the artist that is not often shown. Simply imagining his home and workspace makes him feel more human, and separates him from his art. It also gives great context to his work as it is fun to imagine him painting and working in the spaces that are described.

The Last Banquet Zhang Hongtu

The Last Banquet by Zhang Hongtu is a perfect example of what Zhang aims to do with his art by placing Mao Zedong into ironic and almost laughable situations. This painting depicts Mao Zedong as every character in a copy of the painting The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. In the Da Vinci original, Jesus sits with his disciples at a long banquet table. Jesus has his arms out and open towards the viewer. He faces directly outwards while his disciples gather in two groups around him and talk and look at each other. Behind the table are three windows that show the world outside, Jesus is centered in the middle window. 

In Zhang Hongtu’s copy, he masterfully changes specific aspects of the painting to make a completely new narrative and also morph the European image into a Chinese one. Firstly, Mao plays the part of both Jesus and his disciples. All of the Maos wear the same shirt but in different colors, a classic workman’s shirt with a red collar. And like Jesus in the Da Vinci, the center Mao sits with his hands outstretched and looking directly towards the audience. He also sits in the center window of three paneled windows, but instead of a view of a blue sky, we see traditional Chinese paintings. On the table, they eat bowls of rice with chopsticks, instead of bread and wine.

In an interview with Zhang Hongtu at Michigan University, Zhang said he first saw The Last Supper when he was 14 years old, and he liked the storyline. He remembers the story as Jesus saying: “one of you will betray me.” So, in this painting, Zhang says that Mao asks “who will betray me?” Zhang continues to describe the irony of the painting as the fact that Mao Zedong never criticized himself but always criticizes other people. (A Conversation)

I personally love this painting because it really shows Zhang Hongtu’s sense of humor and his attention to detail. He has fun with his art while also criticizing important social and political topics. My favorite part of his paintings are the traditional Chinese paintings in the windows.



(1) Zhang Hongtu, In Between East and West Zhang Hongtu in Conversation with Martin Powers

Zhang Hongtu

Zhang Hongtu grew up as a Muslim in China and was a young boy during the cultural revolution. Unfortunately, because of his religion, him and his family suffered great consequences under the communist regime. In an interview, Zhang described Mao as getting rid of every religion and holding up one god, himself. So Zhang’s religion was erases

In the 1960s, Zhang studied art in Beijing. He continued studying until until 1973 because that was the very heart of the cultural revolution. He moved to New York City to continue his art studies in 1982.

Zhang’s childhood as a young Muslim in Communist China greatly affected the art that he creates. He was classically trained, and even studied wall pantings in the Magao Caves. However, he mainly works in “pop art” and creates sarcastic or ironic representations of Mao himself, or Mao’s China. He plays on the Chinese propaganda art that artists and intellectuals  were forced to create, and morphs this propagandism art into a statement. Also, a lot of his work reflects his experiences as an immigrant in New York.

In an interview, Zhang said that an artist that he likes and looks up to is Marcel Duchamp. He said it wasn’t even because of his art, but because in art school in China, Zhang was taught that Duchamp was inarguably “bad.” He described that moment as when he started to question art in China and his freedom to create it.

Right now, Zhang Hongtu is 80 years old and boasts a incredible career of over 90 works of art. He still lives in New York, and he is still working.




Sadie Hill

Hello Everyone!

My name is Sadie:) I’m an Art History and Chemistry ID major, and I also have a minor in Spanish. My dream is to go into art conservation. I grew up in NYC, but right now I live in Yonkers, NY. I also love to read, listen to music, and play the guitar. I am such a foodie, I love to cook and eat. My favorite season is spring, and I love being outside. And, I’m super excited for this class! I used to volunteer at an Asian art museum called the Rubin, but I have never actually studied the subject.

This is me in my favorite place in the world: York Beach Maine!

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