Ai Weiwei Gives A Voice to Refugees with Upcoming New York Shows

Ai Weiwei Gives A Voice to Refugees with Upcoming New York Shows

The four concurrent exhibitions will center around themes of uprooting and displacement.

The four concurrent exhibitions will center around themes of uprooting and displacement.

Text: Mariana Fernandez

Does this image look familiar?

It features Chinese contemporary artist and political activist Ai Weiwei recreating the haunting image of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, which shocked and mobilized the world regarding the plight of displaced people from Iraq and Syria.

As the violence in these nations worsens and the European Union fumbles with solutions to the increasing influx of people, the world finds itself in the wake of the worst migrant and refugee crisis since World War II. Today, the 6,000 migrants living in the massive refugee camp in Calais nicknamed ‘the jungle’ are in the process of tearing down their makeshift homes because of yesterday's announcement of their forced eviction on behalf of the French government.

After the similar forced evacuation of migrants from the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, Ai Weiwei gathered the remains they left behind. He took thousands of shoes, blankets, and clothing items with him to his studio in Berlin, where he washed and photographed them for his upcoming exhibition, Laundromat.

The 2,046 items will be exhibited along with a documentary Weiwei made at Idomeni and photos from the multiple refugee camps he has visited across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East at Deitch Projects’ Wooster location as of November 5.

A rightful son to Ai Qing, the famous Chinese poet who, after denouncing the Anti-Rightist movement, was sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, Beijing-born Ai Weiwei lived and studied art in New York in the '80s before bringing his art-activism to his native China. His advocacy against human rights violations and restrictions on free speech led to his being labeled a dissident and a threat to Chinese society. Weiwei’s Shanghai studio was demolished by Chinese authorities in 2011 and he was subject to 81 days of police detention that same year, preventing him from leaving the country.

Ai Weiwei nonetheless continues to use his art for social engagement through mixed media, documentary, installation, and performance pieces that champion racial tolerance and basic human compassion. After his passport was returned to him in July 2015, the artist has dedicated himself to documenting the plight of disenfranchised and displaced people, in large part through his Instagram.

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

In September of last year, Ai Weiwei joined hands with Anish Kapoor in London for an 8-mile walk of compassion for refugees. This past February he wrapped the columns of a German concert hall with bright orange life vests at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival. Last year, he was awarded the Ambassador of Conscience Award by Amnesty International.

His upcoming show Laundromat at Deitch Projects' Wooster Street space will open November 5, concurrently with Ai Weiwei 2016: Roots and Branches at Lisson New York and Mary Boone Gallery’s Uptown and Chelsea locations, featuring works that deal both with uprootedness and with China’s past.

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