Crossing Cultures 

By wendy smith

Before Doctors Without Borders, there was Norman Bethune: a controversial surgeon and passionate advocate of universal healthcare who left Montreal to set up a practice on China’s battlefields during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

The FOFA vitrines are attracting attention. Magnifying glass

The FOFA vitrines are attracting attention.

Catherine MacKenzie’s symposium and exhibition, running concurrently with Rearranging Desires, probes the cross-cultural representations of this frequently celebrated Montrealer.

A selection of journalistic photographs, posters and busts of Bethune line the vitrines in the EV building for Crossing Cultures: Images of Norman Bethune in China. “Posters of him circulated in the millions, so it seemed to be appropriate to mount it in a public thoroughfare, especially one leading to the statue of Bethune given to the city of Montreal by the government of the People’s Republic of China,” said MacKenzie, professor in the department of art history.

The symposium traced Bethune’s trajectory in the visual cultures of Canada, Spain and China. In Canada, Bethune first rose to prominence in left-wing arts communities as an untrained artist who was committed to the idea that art could function as social commentary.

He went to work as a doctor in Spain during the Spanish Civil war, where, as Jesus Majada of the Andalusian Centre of Photography demonstrated, he also ensured the circulation of compelling photographs, taken by a fellow Canadian, of a fascist atrocity. Bethune became a visual icon for selflessness in China. Zeng Chenggang, vice-president of the China Artists Association, provided insight into the dynamic of this process, while others analyzed the more contested issue of how Bethune is seen in his own country.

These events, along with the presence of the Bethune statue on campus, serve as reminders of Concordia’s long history of academic relations with China, said MacKenzie. “We tend to forget that sometimes - it’s one area of international relations where we really showed leadership.”


Concordia University