Ai Weiwei Will Make the Refugee Crisis Personal in His Upcoming Qatar Show

The Chinese artist's latest installation features hundreds of shoes and clothes abandoned by people fleeing war and persecution.

A migrant barber shaves the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's head at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the Greek village of Idomeni on March 17, 2016, where thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded by the Balkan border blockade. Photo by Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is taking his international campaign to express solidarity with the world’s refugees to the Gulf, opening his first exhibition in the region this month in Qatar. It will include a large-scale installation Laundromat (2016), featuring a collection of thousands of items of clothing worn by refugees, many from Syria attempting to reach asylum in northern Europe.

The show will be at the Garage Gallery in the Fire Station in Doha, Qatar, opening March 15 and running through June 1.  The exhibition follows on the heels of Ai’s expansive exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which closed on March 3.

It is a particularly charged time for a show in Doha by China’s most famous activist-artist, who is now based in Berlin. The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar is ongoing. (Qatar denies its neighbor’s claims that it has helped finance terrorists.)

Ai Weiwei’s Laundromat (2012). Photo credit: Ai Weiwei Studio.

Laundromat is a powerful work, a display of 2,046 articles of clothing that have been washed, steamed, and organized, after being salvaged from the abandoned refugee camp in Idomeni in northern Greece, which borders on the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The items are displayed alongside personal mementos and photographs, as well as the film Idomeni (2016), which captures the everyday conditions of the refugees before the camp was evacuated.

“The harsh reality can act as evidence and make us reflect on these conditions. This is a situation many people refuse to see, or try to distort or ignore,” says the artist. “Many wilfully believe this isn’t taking place. When you see so many children out of school—263 million children worldwide—you can’t easily predict what our future holds.”

Idomeni featured prominently in Ai’s feature-length documentary about the global refugee crisis Human Flow, which was released last fall.

Ai Weiwei’s Laundromat (2016). Photo credit: Ai Weiwei Studio.

Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar (2016) is also on view, depicting six themes of the refugee condition: war, ruins, journey, sea crossing, refugee camps, and demonstrations.

Ai Weiwei’s Stacked Porcelain Vases as a Pillar (2017). Photo credit: Ai Weiwei Studio.

While Qatar has been praised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for funding humanitarian relief it notes that the gas-and-oil rich kingdom could do more. According to The New Arab, in 2017 Qatar was the largest donor in the Middle East and North Africa, having contributed more than $26 million to the UN’s refugee agency. But it has not ratified the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention giving basic rights to those fleeing political persecution. Also, citizenship is not automatically granted to children born to Qatari women and non-Qatari men, human rights campaigners point out.

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