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Seeing Red 

He was, as Winston Churchill once said of Russia, a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. As the leader of China's communist revolution, Mao Zedong ruled with an iron fist during the 1950s and '60s, and when his power eventually began to wane he launched his Cultural Revolution campaign against intellectuals, religious leaders and anyone else suspected of opposing his brand of communism. Like most campaigns against "enemies within," it was a personal power grab. Stripped of his control over the military in the early '60s and put in charge of educational institutions, Mao recruited a personal army of his own, the Red Guards, from the ranks of grade-school and university students. Waving little red books of his quotations, they harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed millions of suspected "reactionary" dissidents.

It was the Asian version of McCarthyism, a reign of terror that even the Chinese communist party now repudiates. Of course, the totalitarian capitalism that transformed China from a red desert into an economic powerhouse seemingly overnight is a far cry from anything Mao ever dreamed of. And now that the Cultural Revolution has receded into the mists of history, its old leftover posters and other propaganda relics have become collectible kitsch in China as well as the West, despite all the active pockets of hard-line Maoist revolutionaries that still control vast swatches of other south Asian nations today. But in New Orleans, the only Maoist presence can be found at Barrister's Gallery, where the Cultural Revolution's assorted relics rule, at least through the month of May.

The ceramic figurines and other objects are especially intriguing, perhaps because they are less familiar than the once ubiquitous posters. In one, a green uniformed young woman and an identically dressed young man stand over a kneeling figure in a conical dunce cap. The kneeling figure wears a placard with accusatory Chinese characters while posed like a medieval village idiot, as the young woman shouts something, revolutionary slogans no doubt, through a bullhorn. They all wear the kind of blank, innocent facial expressions commonly found on Barbie dolls, and an official text caption reads: "1 male and 1 female red guards holding down capitalist." Another is aptly described in a caption recounting a scene of "1 red guard holding red book struggling against intellectual," a typical example of any number of such scenes celebrating public political humiliation conducted by figures with the cute expressions of traditional China dolls.

And if such spectacles weren't enough to rouse the somnolent, some practical and patriotic timepieces were also available. "Small round shaped alarm clock" is the caption that accompanies an old-style wind up clock with bells on top and pictures of Chairman Mao with workers and revolutionary banners lithographed on its face -- just the thing to shake you out of your bourgeois stupor in the morning. But, of course, posters are the specialite' de la maison in this show, and they are a spirited lot. Especially emblematic is one with Mao's beaming visage shining like the sun over a sea of workers waving red books and flags in flame-like patterns in a scene reminiscent of the campy choreography of Busby Berkeley's 1930s musicals. The Chinese characters say: "We Love Chairman Mao Unconditionally," and the text caption explains, "This block print depicts many hot-blooded red guards waving red books and flags looking up to head of Mao. During Cultural Revolution, Mao was elevated to god-like position, worshipped by millions especially students."

And now, thanks to the beneficence of Barrister's director, comrade Andy Antippas, as well as the versatility of modern China's hyper-capitalist economy, it can be yours -- all yours -- for a mere $45 dollars! (Available through this special offer only. Not sold in stores!) Additionally, as part of this celebration of the transition of Chairman Mao from an important revolutionary leader into a cheap, collectible commodity, comrade Antippas commissioned a set of nine original paintings of him cranked out by hand at one of China's notorious fine-art factories, places where a mere digital image sent to the right address can be transformed into original paintings by a crew of Chinese technicians at a cut-rate price. Chairman Mao must be turning over in his grave.

click to enlarge Posters such as this one of a beaming Mao Zedong amid - worshipful Red Guards have evolved from propaganda tools - in the 1960s to collectible kitsch today.
  • Posters such as this one of a beaming Mao Zedong amid worshipful Red Guards have evolved from propaganda tools in the 1960s to collectible kitsch today.
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