Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is well-known for using his art to protest against human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government.
Ai’s concern, however, is not limited to his home country. He has lately made several efforts to support refugees and protest the conditions they find themselves living in.
On the Greek island of Lesbos, Ai recently set up a studio to highlight the plight of refugees. “The island has been the main point of entry into the EU for hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past year and the studio would produce several projects with themes related to the refugee crisis from him and his students, Ai told reporters,” said a January 2016 article in the Guardian.
Ai noted the lack of awareness of the situation and willingness to act in Europe and the rest of the world. “The border is not in Lesbos, it really [is] in our minds and in our hearts,” Ai said.
In Copenhagen, Ai closed down his exhibition in response to new laws and reforms. These laws aim to discourage refugees from seeking asylum by delaying family reunification and by allowing Danish authorities to seize refugee’s valuables. “The law has provoked international outrage, with many human rights activists criticizing the delay for family reunification as a breach of international conventions,” as reported by the Guardian.
“The way I can protest is that I can withdraw my works from that country. It is very simple, very symbolic – I cannot co-exist, I cannot stand in front of these people, and see these policies. It is a personal act, very simple; an artist trying not just to watch events but to act, and I made this decision spontaneously,” Ai told the Associated Press.
Perhaps most publicized and controversial of his recent efforts was a reenacted photo of deceased Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi. In this photo, Ai posed in the position of Kurdi’s dead body. Ai described to CNN his emotional experience of posing for the photograph: “I was standing there and I could feel my body shaking with the wind – you feel death in the wind. You are taken by some kind of emotions that you can only have when you are there. So for me to be in the same position [as Kurdi], is to suggest our condition can be so far from human concerns in today’s politics.”
Ai continued to express his frustration with the lack of action and compassion for refugees: “…you see all those politicians that are not really helping, and trying to find all kinds of excuses. To refuse and to even put these refugees in more tragic situations.”
For this effort in particular, Ai Weiwei received significant criticism. Various news publications and art critics derided the photo. For instance, a headline in the Spectator labeled it “crude, thoughtless and egoistical,” and an article in the Guardian discussed the danger of the photo having a “very real possibility of diluting a worthy cause.”
While the criticism may be valid, to expect Ai Weiwei to stop trying may be very mistaken. He plans to continue to raise awareness and support for the refugees. “As an artist, I have to relate to humanity’s struggles…I never separate these situations from my art.”
– Anton Li