Ai Weiwei Hits a New Low by Crassly Recreating Photo of Drowned Syrian Toddler

This is not the right way to raise awareness.

Ai Weiwei. Photo: Ai Weiwei via Instagram.
Ai Weiwei. Photo: Ai Weiwei via Instagram.

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has come under criticism for recreating the tragic image of the the drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a beach near the Turkish town of Bodrum in September 2015.

Ai’s reenactment was taken by the Indian photojournalist Rohit Chawla for India Today. A print of the image was also exhibited at the India Art Fair in New Delhi, as part of a curated exhibition simply titled “The Artists.”

In the photo, Ai lies facedown on a pebble beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, where the artist has set up a studio to work on several projects dealing with the European migration crisis.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Chawla admitted that Ai and his assistants “actively helped in staging this photograph for us.”

Meanwhile, India Art Fair co-owner Sandy Angus defended the project. “It is an iconic image because it is very political, human and involves an incredibly important artist like Ai Weiwei,” Angus told the Washington Post. “The image is haunting and represents the whole immigration crisis and the hopelessness of the people who have tried to escape their pasts for a better future,” he added.

The reaction on social media was markedly different, however. Referring to Ai’s version of the image, one Twitter user remarked: “Just because its by a famous artist doesn’t mean it is a) art or b) good.”

Twitter user Nigel Britto agreed. “I have never understood modern/contemporary ‘art’, and after seeing Ai Weiwei pose as a dead Syrian child, I understand it even less,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Guardian editor David Batty called the stunt “lazy, cheap, crass,” while academic Heather D’Cruz said the image was “disrespecting Aylan Kurdi.”

On Instagram, Sascha Kurfiss wrote: “[…] Not sure about my feelings. Is it art? Is it just populistic? For sure it is PR…and now I know why he is posting all those pictures from Lesbos the last weeks…to prepare this stunt.”

Contrary to what Angus said, it is the original image, taken by the young Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir, that “represents the whole immigration crisis,” and not Ai’s copy. The artist’s attempt to capitalize on the heartbreaking fate of a young child is truly tasteless.

It is important to raise awareness on an undoubtedly urgent issue, but this is not the right way to do it.


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