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Painting by Liu Yi (Image via

Chinese painter Liu Yi is tackling an extremely political topic: his rough-hewn, black-and-white portrait paintings depict Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest of the Chinese government’s impact on their country.

Ninety-six Tibetans have self-immolated to date, 83 men and 13 women. Seventy-nine have died in the process, according to Save Tibet, and 20 were monks or former monks. Liu is completing the portraits — he’s done 40 so far — in order to bear witness to political history as it’s unfolding. And though the artist sympathizes with the Tibetans’ plight, it’s still difficult work. “When I’m painting, I’m thinking: ‘Enough, enough, don’t do this anymore. Stop,’” he told the AP.

Liu Yi working on one of his paintings (Image via

For the artist, it’s a humanitarian issue. He brings viewers into an intimate encounter with the faces of those who have found the conflict too much to bear. “These people are not attacking other people, they are completely sacrificing themselves,” Liu, who is also a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, said.

Liu Yi with his paintings (Image via

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...