KAWS Hit With Criticism in China for Mao-Based Artwork—Artist Responds [Updated]

Brian Donnelly, also known as KAWS.


Hot on the heels of the Chinese Communist Party’s grand celebrations marking 70 years of its rule, the fast-rising artist KAWS is being criticized by some in the country for a soon-to-be-auctioned 2002 work that depicts Chairman Mao bedecked with the ears, hair, crossed-out eyes, and bowtie often sported by his trademark characters, according to Highsnobiety.

Some fans apparently responded to the work, which was set to hit the block at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on October 7, by burning KAWS merchandise and sharing the images live on the social-media site Weibo. Among his many projects, KAWS has collaborated on clothing with Uniqlo, and according to Highsnobiety, the retailer has removed from its Chinese website pieces that feature the artist’s work.

The piece was slated to hit the block at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on October 7, in a sale that was to feature more than half a dozen other paintings and sculptures by the artist. The Mao work has since been removed from the auction house’s site, though other works by the artist remain. The lot had been estimated to sell for between 620,000 to 950,000 Hong Kong dollars (about $79,000 to $121,100).

This morning, the artist published a statement to his Instagram page, addressing the controversy. The post reads, “I would never create an artwork that tries to offend any individual person, group, or country. I have always worked with popular imagery, just as I did in 2001 when the artwork was created. The [Mao] artwork was not politically motivated then, and should not be used politically now. My family, friends and fans are from all parts of the world and understand how much I enjoy creating global work that respects all people.”

Controversy over the painting apparently started when an article was posted by the publication and online shopping platform 2CCM, which noted that the sale was coming one week after the 70th anniversary of People’s Republic of China.

A few months ago, in April, Sotheby’s Hong Kong played host to a triumph for the artist, selling his 2005 painting The Kaws Album for an earth-shattering $14.7 million, more than 14 times its high estimate.

ARTnews has reached out to  Uniqlo for comment, and both Sotheby’s auction house and Skarstedt, the artist’s gallery, have declined to comment.

Updated, 10/2/2019 to include KAWS’ response. 

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