The Huge Voice of an Artist

Ai Weiwei an international voice - Chinese artist Ai Weiwei waving to reporters outside his studio in Beijing on June 23, 2011. Portraits were done of people attending Weiwei's opening at Lisson Gallery while he was still under detention
(Photo Peter Parks AFP Getty Images)

Born in 1957 in Beijing, Ai Weiwei has played a key role in contemporary Chinese art over the last two decades. Among his works is The Sunflower Seed installation at London’s Tate Modern. He also had a part in designing the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics of 2008. However being an artist and an activist, he refused to attend to the 2008 Olympics opening when he claimed the Olympics had become a fake smile that China was putting on for the rest of the world.

In 2010, just after being released from house arrest, and in response to China’s visit by a British delegation headed by Prime Minister David Cameron, he called for Cameron to raise the issue of human rights in China. “World leaders should speak out on this issue because their countries profit from business here.”

And April 2011 saw yet another arrest of this outspoken critic of China’s human rights. He was detained for unspecified reasons at Beijing airport while passing through security checks for a flight to Hong Kong. Four months into his detention, his family were given no information as to where he was being detained or whether he had been charged with any offence.

His detention prompted protests around the world. In China, protesters including students and artists held banners and shouted protests in a true call to the central government to respect freedom of expression. Images of the artist were spray painted on walls reading ‘Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei’, but these were immediately removed by the government’s cleaning staff.

Fellow artists around the world were prompted to speak with ‘a communal voice’. Turner Prize-winning artist and sculptor Anish Kapoor, also condemned China’s detention of Weiwei and called on galleries and museums to close for a day in protest. “This is not a situation that is acceptable in any circumstances. It does bear witness to the barbarity of governments if they’re that paranoid that they have to put away artists. It is a ridiculous situation,” Kapoor defines.

Reporter and film maker Alison Klayman captured Ai Weiwei as her subject as he made the shift from prominent artist to international icon in her film, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” The film went on to win a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Ai Weiwei through Alison Klayman can be further known through this link

And it somehow feels all very synonymous with the student marches in Tiananmen Square. Nearly twenty-four years ago – 5th June 1989 – I had cried upon watching the news that day. The iconic picture of fearless strength and determination of the lone man standing defiantly in the path of a line of tanks still comes to mind as strongly. But all governments keep back when faced with the issue of China’s human rights lest business with her is hampered. And yet, lone voices as that of the artist Ai Weiwei continue with their quest to shout out the truth to the world despite the risk that someday, like the voices of those students in that square, it is relinquished.