AI WEIWEI: YOURS TRULY Is an Open Letter About Justice, Humanity, and Freedom for Prisoners of Conscience Around the World
The family of Ebrahim Sharif Al Sayed, prisoner of conscience in Bahrain, visits the exhibition and photographs their father’s portrait. The art show moved them all to tears. For his daughter, it was seeing her father’s face mixed in with portraits of historical figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., who, “really defined human rights activism, the peaceful movement, the peaceful struggle.” Al Sayed’s family has had their own struggle, to grow up and live separate from him during his four years of imprisonment. Through tears and hiccups, his daughter tells of the strength her family has learned through this challenge.
This is the collision of family and political trauma. The battle for human rights and justice around the world is felt by individuals: prisoners, their children, artists and humans. Ai Weiwei, contemporary artist and human rights defender, pulls from his own experiences as a prisoner, as a child, as an artist and most of all as a human to create the 2014-15 exhibition, Ai Weiwei: @Large.
Following his release from detention in Beijing, Ai works with curator Cheryl Haines to organize an exhibition about freedom, in a prison which he cannot visit. He gets the idea to have visitors write postcards to those who are imprisoned from a memory of his father, a poet sent to labor camp, who was once brought comfort by a postcard. The artwork he creates is imbued with his trademark cutting and melancholic playfulness. He challenges everyone to confront their own humanity, while walking through the cells of Alcatraz.
Directed by Cheryl Haines herself, the film offers insider glimpses to the planning and set-up of the exhibition through crucial conversations. Across a table in Beijing, or across the world via video chat, Ai and Haines lay out both the physical reality of the artworks and the emotional landscape of the artist.
“It’s making a difference.”
Beyond that, emotional responses from prisoners or their families turn this film into an inspirational open letter for justice and kindness around the world.
Chelsea Manning laughs and shares with Ai Weiwei the pride she felt hearing from young LGBTQ+ visitors, in addition to the solace that all communication brings to those inside. Cheryl Haines visits Ahmed Maher, co-founder of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, in Cairo. She has brought his LEGO portrait, and Maher’s son’s build it while the grown-ups drink Arabic coffee and talk about the thousands of postcards thanking Maher for his bravery.
A well-paced and sweeping project, AI WEIWEI: YOUR’S TRULY has a lot to offer, in this writer’s view. For fans of Ai Weiwei’s work, this is a deep-dive into his creative process and a thorough look at a memorable exhibition. The universal and emotional story about freedom and family, underlined by Ai’s own history, will also surely appeal to many. What the film lacks in comprehensive history or political analysis of human rights abuses around the world, it makes up for in an impassioned and sentimental cry for justice. After watching, you might also be compelled to begin a life-long journey towards compassion and awareness, one that maybe begins with a single postcard.
Director: Cheryl Haines
To find screenings of the film, visit the First Run Features page for Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly
All images courtesy of First Run Features
About the Author:
Gisela Levy (she/her/hers) is a Senior at Columbia University majoring in East Asian Studies and International Affairs. She has worked or volunteered at museums in Washington, D.C. and New York, and hopes to work at more. Having lived in Brazil, Bethesda, and Beijing, she enjoys making art about cultural collisions.