“I hope to wash my subjects of their ‘otherness’ and reveal them as dignified, even mythic figures on the grander scale of history painting,” Liu once wrote of her ambitions.
In 2019, the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing cancelled a show of her work after Chinese authorities refused to issue required import permits. No official reason was given for the decision, though in an interview with the New York Times, Liu said the censorship board was particularly concerned with nine works, including a self-portrait featuring the artist as a young woman with a rifle slung over her shoulder and another work that depicted a group of schoolgirls in uniforms wearing gas masks that was based on a photograph of an air raid during Word War II.
The exhibition would have also included a series of paintings based on Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photography, including Lange’s famous Migrant Mother (1936). Lange’s black-and-white images were recreated by Liu in a palette of washed gray and yellow contrasted by bright streaks of orange and blue.
“Of course my work has political dimensions, but my focus is really the human faces, the human struggle, the epic journey,” Liu said at the time, adding, “I sincerely feel like all I’m doing is enshrining the anonymous working class who never had a voice.”
The first major retrospective of her work on the East Coast, “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands,” will open later this month at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. In a statement, NPG director Kim Sajet said Liu’s “extraordinary artistic vision reminds us that even in the midst of despair, there is hope, and when people help each other, there is joy. She believed in the power of art—and portraiture—to change the world.”
Sajet added that during a recent studio visit with Liu, the artist “communicated her belief in the exhibition’s potential to convey her hopes for the future—a future based on a foundation of empathy for others.”