A long Wei to go

discusses artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s responses to the refugee crisis

Image: Alfred Weidinger

Image: Alfred Weidinger

The ongoing refugee crisis is appalling. The general rhetoric towards refugees by governments is dehumanising. The response from a number of European nations has been inadequate. Scaremongering is fraught and sympathy feels hideously lacking. We should be ashamed.

Our own prime minister’s language towards refugees is unpleasant to say the least. Cameron not only fails to acknowledge a desolation that we are unlikely to ever come close to experiencing, by describing those fleeing their country as ‘swarms’, but he also has the audacity to dismiss those in Calais as ‘a bunch of migrants’ on Holocaust Memorial Day. Meanwhile, Denmark recently passed a law enabling it to seize valuables from refugees seeking asylum in the country. The law, which has been met with much-deserved anger, empowers authorities to confiscate valuables worth more than £1020. Although items of sentimental value are exempt (which in itself is a blurred marker of distinction), everything from laptops to watches can now be seized by law.

The justification, according to Danish government, is that these valuables will go towards covering the expenses of their upkeep. This kind of rhetoric undoubtedly has dangerous, divisive implications, and somehow, the law manifests itself as an attempt to deter refugees from seeking asylum in Denmark, as opposed to addressing the plight of those fleeing their home. Further to that, Switzerland and Germany recently passed similar policies, which has also been met with disappointment towards the lack of one basic necessity: a common humanity. The impetus of confiscating valuables from refugees comes from a very physicalised, and very ignorant assumption that money and safety are mutually exclusive. The policy, inevitably, leaves much soul-searching for these nations.

It is the activists and creative thinkers who spring-board a response to the plight of refugees

Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist and activist, shares this sentiment. He is the creative talent who has made his name through his clashes with Chinese authorities as well as through his art, and he is now using his public profile to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis with a contentiousness that is admirable. The dissident Weiwei has expressed his regret towards the Danish parliament for choosing “to be in the forefront of symbolic and inhuman politics”, and off the back of Denmark’s dogma of submission, he closed his Copenhagen exhibition in a mark of retaliation.

In December last year, Weiwei visited a camp at Lesbos and posed for pictures with the people there on his Instagram, in addition to setting up a studio on the Greek island which will produce projects about the refugee crisis under a number of thematic umbrellas. It is a crisis that has left an estimated 4.3 million Syrians displaced.

More recently, Ai Weiwei has relied on the galvanising capability of his art to marry the hideous reality of the refugee crisis with his shock-factor upon audiences, in recreating the image of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi who horrifically washed onto a beach near Bodrum, Turkey, after his family’s boat capsized as they attempted the perilous journey that unremittingly takes place every single day. Weiwei wants to spearhead debates about why the general trajectory of response to war-torn Syria is rooted in self-importance, by curating art that is anything but self-important.

It is the activists and creative thinkers who spring-board a response to the plight of refugees, and here it is at its most transmittable, most harrowing, and most thought-provoking.

Those fleeing their country are not necessarily poor, and Ai Weiwei is reminding us of that fact in quite stark terms. The people that are now displaced were the teachers, doctors and artisans that have witnessed their country turn to political turmoil and become an uninhabitable warzone.

These people are fleeing fundamentally for their safety, something which seems to be misunderstood. We are best judged by the compassion we show, and Ai Weiwei acknowledges that. An adequate response to the refugee crisis by our governments is long overdue, but art can certainly build these bridges in the meantime.

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