In 1986, when Chinese artists danced to the music at parties with Australian diplomat Geoff Raby, relations between the nations appeared to be in pretty good shape.
“The 1980s were totally bohemian, there were parties, lots of warm beer. Small cassettes play rock music. Diplomats and a few businessmen were really the first to internationalize contemporary Chinese art,” he recalls. An exuberant character, Raby fondly recalls befriending artists who are now fixated on photos of long lunches in time. Beijing’s artists spread their wings when the one-party state seemed to allow it.
Raby first went to China as an economist with the Australian Embassy and returned in 2007 as ambassador. In both cases, he admits, he witnessed a China that was more open to the West and where fortunes flowed as a result of increasing world trade.
“From 1979 you have a liberalization period and Deng Xiaoping. This has awakened optimism and hope. At that moment there were artists, many trained to a very high technical level, learning Western art and having access to art books for the first time. Her enthusiasm electrified everyone like me.”
Collecting art became his passion, part of building bridges that we often call soft power, where culture seeks to succeed where violence fails. How he championed contemporary, often politically charged work without offending his hosts is a tale of diplomatic tact, enthusiasm and good timing as China opened up to the world.
In 35 years Raby collected almost 200 works – paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, prints and calligraphy. He recently donated the collection to his alma mater, La Trobe University, and the collection is being shown for the first time at the Bendigo Art Gallery alongside an exhibit from the city’s Golden Dragon Museum.
Artists such as Guan Wei and Ai Weiwei are now well known in Australia and around the world and are represented by major global galleries. but contemporary art that was not propaganda for a one-party state needed early advocates. Raby is considered one of those early champions alongside groundbreaking galleries like Red Gate.
Through longstanding friendships with Chinese artists, some of whom have moved to Australia, he is credited with increasing the wider recognition of their work.
Raby argues that diplomats, rather than playing it safe, recognize cultural treasures and create collections precisely because of their role and resources. “When I first went to Beijing in 1986, the artists weren’t allowed to exhibit anywhere because they weren’t part of the academy and they had to find makeshift ways to exhibit. We used to give our on-site diplomatic apartments to the artists to hang up their work for a weekend.
“At that time, every single Chinese person who came had to be escorted to the home and registered by name. I felt like I was living in France in the 1890s when the Impressionists were outside the academy. From that moment, I realized that the tremendous changes that were happening in China were reflected in cultural fields, including the fine arts.”
Author Nicholas Jose, a former cultural advisor at the Australian Embassy, said Raby introduces visiting Australians to China’s contemporary art to show “the possibility of richer, more dynamic interactions between cultures.”
In Melbourne to oversee the selection of works on display, Raby laments the rising tensions between Australia and China under Xi Jinping and the lack of these interactions. Still a wayward commentator after retiring from diplomacy, he writes, “We have not been able to make an impact in a region where we strive most.”
He criticizes both the former and current prime ministers for not improving the relationship. He says he has more faith in Secretary of State Penny Wong, describing her as considered and calm and avoiding “excessive rhetoric”.
Australians miss the opportunity to learn more about the Chinese people beyond the communist regime, he says. “One of the most important things is the culture. We can blast all the clichés about each other.”
There are few more heated debates in Australia than our past, present and future with China and the United States, and Raby chimes in by saying he’s been called a “panda hugger” – soft on China. However, some of his satirical artworks have stung the panda hard.
“Li Dapeng’s artwork of the space-suited pig waving at the viewer is really political,” he admits. “Pigs are a symbol in China of being happy, greedy and stupid. It pokes fun at prestige projects like the space program. So I think this artist was brave.
“I used to have it in my apartment and the Chinese would come to visit and be totally perplexed that the ambassador had a pig in a space suit on the wall. Chinese communists had no irony.”
Another significant work in his collection is the chilling photographic self-portrait dialog. The artist Xiao Lu points a gun at the viewer. It refers to an infamous event in 1989 when the artist walked into a Beijing art gallery and fired a live bullet gun at her own installation. The act was interpreted as political and read as the first shot from Tiananmen Square. A loss of innocence for a country that had anticipated looser government controls.
The shot ended the exhibition, the artist was arrested and later sought refuge in Sydney. But liberalization is increasing and decreasing. By 2010, her memoir was published by Raby at the Australian Embassy in Beijing.
His own memory of Tiananmen Square, observed from a balcony, remains sharp. “You could see the sky lighting up and armored cars rushing past. The next day there was a systematic attempt to terrorize the people of Beijing with trucks that kept shooting, and nobody knew what was going on, there was no information. In hindsight, there were maybe three to four days of premeditated actions to expel foreigners from Beijing and terrorize the population, and it all worked for the government.”
Perhaps he is a diplomat through and through, as he does not express himself emotionally about what happened or his reaction at the time. “I’m intellectually fascinated and intrigued by China, but I don’t love it. I think the people are wonderful, but China is an authoritarian one-party state, and authoritarian one-party states do that.
“I’m often wrongly condemned in the media as a panda hugger, but when
If you look at everything I’ve written, I never miss an opportunity to remind people that this is a one-party state with a terrible human rights record.”
He says diplomats “have to make our points as best we can. Western embassies in China are trying to advance human rights and political liberalization, it’s all part of our core agenda.”
As the story progressed, in the new millennium China welcomed visitors again, hosted the Olympic Games and foreign journalists, including Australians. Exiled artists returned to Beijing. Raby returned as ambassador in 2007.
“I had easy days, the relationship was great,” Raby says of his later years in China, when Prime Ministers Howard, Rudd and Gillard were in office. “The entire contemporary art scene exploded in the 2000s. Everyone loved it, it was the hottest thing internationally.”
Raby makes it clear that his collection is a deeply personal selection, spanning key movements such as the Chinese avant-garde, “cynical realism”, pop and socialism, surrealism and fantasy – all emerging as China’s dramatic changes inevitably influenced art. Artists not only ventured into dissident ideas, but also targeted consumption and rapid development during China’s amazingly rapid urbanization.
But censorship would never go away. In a foreword to Damian Smith’s book on the Raby collection, Spain’s former ambassador to Beijing, Manuel Valencia, writes: “Irony, hidden messages and a sense of humor were badly needed to escape the relentless censorship of the Ministry of Culture and Propaganda.”
The wit of veiled meanings clearly appeals to Raby, as does a sizeable collection of erotica, including Ling Jian’s irreverent one The Birth of Venus. A naked woman stands on a lily pond, a Cultural Revolution armband around each arm, and urinates into paradise. “It’s his version of Botticelli’s Venus,” says Raby. “It’s pretty outrageous, but it’s so beautifully executed.”
In Our Time: Four Decades of Art from China and Beyond – The Geoff Raby Collection and Treasures of Dai Gum San: Chinese Art from the Golden Dragon Museum are at the Bendigo Art Gallery until February 19, 2023.
https://www.smh.com.au/culture/art-and-design/diplomat-art-lover-just-don-t-call-geoff-raby-a-panda-hugger-20220815-p5b9vr.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Diplomat, art lover – just don’t call Geoff Raby a panda hugger