Ai Weiwei has been described as many things: artist, activist, dissident and filmmaker. To him it is all part of his work.
“I don’t care what they call me. I never wanted to be called anything,” he says.
His humility and quiet voice drew in the audience during a recent appearance at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.
It was a retrospective evening, a discussion of his life and work – but Ai is looking to the future.
“I have a lot of curiosity,” he says. “I have a habit to document something I witness but is larger than I can understand.”
His work will appear at the 21st Biennale of Sydney next year, a festival of contemporary art. This autumn, he’ll present Good Fences Make Good Neighbours, for which he will be installing fences across New York City.
“Today we have more fences than ever,” says Ai. “People are trying to separate and they try to picture others as a potential danger, trying to divide the people as different groups. I think this is a really dangerous condition, for politicians to use this kind of hatred.”
He is also finishing a documentary called Human Flow, which takes a hard look at the global refugee crisis. The United Nations estimates 65.3 million people were displaced by conflict and persecution in 2015 alone, a record number. Ai set out to meet some of them, travelling to more than 40 refugee camps in two years.
“They’re part of us, we are part of them – there’s no way we can escape this,” he says of the refugees. “There’s no way you can turn your eyes away, to say: ‘I don’t see them, it’s not my problem.’ This is not possible. We have to help them.”
The Syrian conflict features prominently in his work, and he has called on Arab states to do more to help.
Ai’s own experience as a refugee provides some insight into the emotion behind his recent work. In 1958, the year after he was born, the Communist Party of China denounced his father, poet Ai Qing, as an enemy of the people and banned him from writing. The family ended up in exile in labour camps in Xinjiang province. As a boy, Ai watched as his father cleaned toilets in the summer and broke ice in winter. He says that though his dad was not allowed to be a poet, his life was poetry.
The family returned to Beijing in 1976. Ai studied animation and moved to New York City in the 1980s. He went back to China in 1993, where he supported experimental artists, fought for human rights and investigated government corruption.
In 2011, he was arrested and detained for 81 days without charge. He was later accused of owing tax and failing to pay fines. After his release he remained under surveillance and was not allowed to leave China until 2015.
“The system there is very much aggressive and brutal,” says Ai. But he continued to create and inspire through his art and activism. He now uses social media to get his message out.
“I don’t think I’d be who I am today without social media,” he says. “Today is very different. You can express yourself. It’s possible to have your voice heard.”
So should emerging artists follow his lead? “My case [is] not recommendable,” he says.
* With additional reporting by Reuters