Art, Ai Wei Wei, and the refugee crisis

Ai Wei Wei’s latest installation art has yet again presented a striking and meaningful message, as the grandiose pillars of the Konzerthaus Berlin concert hall were bound and covered with the abandoned, bright orange lifejackets of 14,000 displaced refugees on the shore of Greece’s Lesbos Island. Well-known, especially in the PRC, Taiwan and Hong Kong, for his controversial expression against China’s governmental endeavors, Ai is primarily an artist who, using what he does best, advocates for issues he holds close to heart.

Ai’s ongoing stay at the Idomeni refugee camp in northern Greece has been captured closely on his social media account, as he detailed photographs of his surroundings and the people he had encountered. His uploads are unconventional, and provide fresh, ground-level perceptions of the hardships and daily lives of the displaced in Greece. Approximately 14,000 refugees had been barricaded after Macedonia closed off its borders, stranded within a rapidly overflowing camp. “You can’t believe this is happening in Europe in the 21st century,” Ai had stated.

The hunger strike of the Iranian refugees situated in Calais camp due to unsuccessful entry into England had also made an appearance on Ai’s social media account, as he records portraits of the tight-sewn lips and blindfolded eyes as demands for non-violation of human rights. The hunger strike and protest was a response to the multiple cases of police violence against refugees and displaced civilians – some of them young children. It was also directed towards the clearance of the migrant encampment, also known as the “Calais Jungle”, threatening to further displace the refugees.

(Photo courtesy of

(Photo courtesy of

Who is Ai Wei Wei?

Ai is most famously known for his outspoken and disputed endeavors against the PRC government post-Sichuan earthquake in 2008. He had shown efforts in drawing international attention through the controversial recreation of Alan Kurdi’s photograph, an infant refugee who had perished on the Turkish shore of Bodrum.

Ai’s most recent project sends him to the Greek Island of Lesbos, where he engages his art with the refugee crisis, drawing attention to the heated topic. He describes his spontaneous trip to Lesbos Island in order to interact directly with the refugees as a “personal act”, on the behalf of an artist who is “trying not just to watch these events, but to also act” (The Guardian).

The 2005 Sina Weibo blog that had brought Ai to the public eye and kick-started his activism journey, was a mixture of political criticism, social commentaries and contemporary art. His blunt and daring commentaries on the events during and post-2008 Sichuan earthquake led to the PRC’s pursuit (they placed him in secret detention), and led to the beginning of his rigorous quest for creative freedom and universal human rights.

2008, the year of the deadly Sichuan earthquake that had seized over 69,000 lives, marked Ai’s most distinguished activism effort. His compilation of over 5,000 names of children who had died during the earthquake due to deficient architectural construction was a direct jab at the central government’s regime. The questions and challenges presented in his works and activism stir controversy in the uptight Chinese social environment that is heavily monitored by the PRC, raising local and international voices that call for a check on freedom of speech and governmental transparency.

(Photo courtesy of & AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(Photo courtesy of & AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

What is the situation, and how is Ai involved?

Pope Francis’ visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos in late April 2016 led to the desperate calling of action for universal aid, as demands for a revision of the Turkey-European Union accord had been undergoing increasing rigor. There are currently 55,000 refugees spread across 40 camps in Greece, living under the daily fear of deportation.

Amongst others, Ai and Pope Francis’ visit to Lesbos Island shed light upon the dire living conditions of the refugees that had been stranded in the camps. Riots have broken out in protest against the human rights violations that refugees have suffered. Chants of “freedom, freedom” filled the streets, and violence rose amongst the numerous refugee camps, including ones located in Lesbos, Chios and Idomeni.

Ai is an artist who aims to involve as many people as possible into the making of his works – a lifelong collection of socially opinionated and convention-challenging pieces. He stated in an interview with The Guardian, that he would “never separate these situations from my art”, and that “as an artist, [he] has to relate to humanity’s struggles”. By sharing photographs of the daily lives and living conditions of the refugees in Greece, Ai is involving his audience and social media followers in a larger realm that extends contemporary art. Instead, this realm encompasses society and international issues, challenging the world’s presumptions on the meanings behind ‘art’, and why it is created.


Ai Wei Wei’s Instagram account: