Ai Weiwei: Remembering the Forgotten

Ai Weiwei visiting Lesbos

Dissident artist Ai Weiwei is a famously outspoken critic of the Chinese government. He was banned from leaving China and had his passport confiscated in 2011 during a crackdown on political activists. However, Ai has made good use of his passport ever since Chinese authorities returned it to him in July 2015. In December, he visited the Greek island of Lesbos, the European port of entry for hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, and shared their plight through photos on his social media accounts. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than one million refugees—mainly fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—reached Europe in 2015; 80 percent of these took the dangerous route via the Greek Islands.

Art and media in the promotion of human rights

Ai does not differentiate between his his art and his political activism. He has been successful in using social media and the Internet as artistic media to condemn human rights abuses and promote justice. Ai does not consider “art” to be a universally recognized, delineated, and safeguarded space. Rather, he constantly challenges what constitutes expression and often ties his artistic output to his political views. He is especially famous for his criticism of the Chinese regime and his advocacy for the right to free speech, but has a clear global mission, as demonstrated by his current concern about the refugee crisis.

Ai recently set up a studio on Lesbos, explaining, “As an artist, I have to relate to humanity’s struggles . . . I never separate these situations from my art.” He uploaded a wealth of photos and videos from Lesbos onto Instagram and Twitter in an effort to bring attention to the plight of refugees. The photos show rubber dinghies reaching shore, refugees standing in line for registration, tents and life vests, and even a scrap from a child’s notebook showing translations of words such as “fled,” “stay,” and “escape.” Ai has criticized the international community for ignoring the refugee crisis, emphasizing the basic human rights to life and a home and insisting that “the border is not in Lesbos, it really [is] in our minds and in our hearts.” Through art, Ai hopes to expand awareness and to inspire thought and action—and that is exactly what art should do. As writer Cesar A. Cruz said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

Remembrance and change

Remembrance and the value of life are common themes in Ai’s art and advocacy. He believes that every person deserves to have her humanity recognized, even if her home nation does not protect human rights. The photos that Ai has posted in Lesbos have helped assert the rights of refugees to be human, to have a collective memory, and to not be erased from history. Ai wants to do more: he recently told Agence France-Presse that he plans to create a memorial for the people who have died while fleeing violence in countries like Syria. The image of Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, whose body washed ashore in Turkey last year, shocked and moved the entire world, but attention to the humanitarian tragedy was concentrated on this singular event and faded all too quickly. In a world where most people are flooded by news and desensitized to suffering, we need artists like Ai Weiwei to build greater empathy for refugees. To this end, he plans to bring a team of students to his new studio in Lesbos to create a documentary that will memorialize the victims and change the perspective of anyone watching. Over 3,700 refugees died crossing the Mediterranean last year. “A lot of people have lost their lives under the waves,” Ai said. ”We need a memorial.”

Hopefully, Ai’s work on Lesbos will prompt an overdue response from the international community. In 2015, Lesbos’s population grew to five times its normal size, as 465,000 asylum seekers crossed the Aegean Sea to reach the island. For many months, heroic volunteers in Lesbos have been feeding and sheltering hundreds of thousands of refugees and leading rescue operations. An online petition to grant the people of Lesbos a Nobel Peace Prize even garnered over 14,000 signatures. Ai praised Lesbos’s efforts, but also noted that the island would need more resources in order to alleviate the crisis.

Ai is using his celebrity and artistic vision to to bring attention to the plight of refugees. But to truly realize his hope for change, people around the world need to open their minds, hearts, and land to those who need it most.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here