Ai Weiwei: 'One voice' for refugees in latest Amsterdam exhibit

AFP , Monday 19 Sep 2016

ai wei wei
#SafePassage exhibit by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (Photo: FOAM museum press material)

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei Thursday unveiled thousands of mobile phone pictures of refugees at his newest exhibition, saying it aimed to speak with "one voice" for those who have fled to Europe's shores.

Entitled #SafePassage, the exhibition in Amsterdam's Foam museum of photography features images snapped by Ai since December, during visits to refugee camps in France, Greece, Israel, Syria and Turkey.

It also includes sculptured marble lifebuoys and a marble surveillance camera, which Ai said represent the "struggle between the individual and the structures put in place to dominate society".

"I want to show my position" on the refugee crisis, Ai told journalists and art experts gathered for the exhibition's launch at Foam, situated in the heart of the historic city's canal belt.

"In many cases I wanted to give people one voice," he said of the photographs, which are often composed of sequential shots of refugees coming ashore, while others see him posing for a selfie with smiling migrants in a camp.

The soft-spoken, bearded Ai said: "When I saw women come to shore on a boat, it really made me suffer knowing that I couldn't help."

He added: "Our incapability to protect their basic rights, humanity, human dignity... that makes me feel very, very sad."

Ai, China's most prominent contemporary artist, helped design the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics. But his works have often fallen foul of China's authorities, and in 2011, he was detained for 81 days.

Part of the exhibition showcases Ai's experiences while under tight surveillance by the Chinese government. He eventually moved to Berlin after Beijing returned his passport in July 2015, having confiscated it for four years.

Ai, who now regards himself as a political refugee in Germany, has taken a close interest in migrants' plight since visiting the Greek island of Lesbos in December 2015.

"If you have, not willingly, had to give up your home, your family, then you are a refugee too," Ai said.

He caused a stir in February after posing for India Today magazine on a Lesbos beach as Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose tiny body was found lying face down on a Turkish beach last September, an image that reverberated around the world.

The 59-year-old went on to wrap some 14,000 life jackets discarded by migrants around Berlin's Konzerthaus theatre.

In Vienna in July, the Chinese artist floated 1,005 life jackets in a pond at the city's Belvedere palace.

Now a regular visitor to Lesbos, Ai plans to create a refugee memorial on the island.

More than one million people made the journey to Europe in 2015, the majority fleeing war in Syria and the Middle East, and a further 208,000 have come since January, according to UN figures in June.

In one room of the exhibition, Ai displays pictures showing a listening device concealed in an electrical socket found during a visit to China, as well toy pandas stuffed with documents leaked by fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden.

An explanation on the wall says the pandas refer to a metaphor for the Chinese secret police.

The #SafePassage exhibition runs until December 7.

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