Ai Weiwei is a renowned Chinese contemporary artist and political activist, best known for his sculptural installations and performances that call attention to humanitarian crises worldwide. Ai was born to father and poet Ai Qing, well known in China for being imprisoned by the Nationalist government on suspicion of being a Leftist and later accused by the People’s Republic of China by being a Rightest during Mao’s anti-intellectual campaign. When Ai was one his family was exiled for 25 years and lived in poverty near North Korea and Xingjiang –an experience that had a deep effect on his later work. To help make a living in harsh conditions, he learned practical skills as a child like making furniture and bricks, techniques he later used in his artworks.
Ai and his family retuned from exile after Mao’s death in 1976, and he entered the Beijing Film Academy for animation. He became part of The Stars, a subversive political group that reintroduced art as a mode of self-expression after Mao’s ideology that art is only for communal interests of the state. In 1981, Weiwei moved to the United States, studied at Parsons under Sean Scully, and was involved in the contemporary art scene. He produced books on interviews with Western artists, including Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. When he returned to China in the late 90s to be with his ill father, Weiwei produced furniture in the traditional Chinese practice he learned from his father, and founded an Architectural practice called FAKE design.
In 1999, Weiwei represented China at the Venice Biennale with work that rejected the Beijing’s state-approved art program. Weiwei’s art did not celebrate the lives of people thriving under communism or glorify everyday themes, infuriating the government. Weiwei’s 2005 blog was subsequently shut down by the Chinese government, he was beat for uncovering and releasing real facts about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, placed on house arrest in 2010, banned from twitter, and detained for 81 days with no formal charges. Weiwei gained international fame for his bad relationship with Chinese authorities and political outspokenness.
Ai Weiwei’s work is powerful and influential, as he raises awareness for Chinese contemporary culture and calls attention to humanitarian crises of silenced peoples facing poverty and oppression, such as the refugee crisis. Among his best-known work is the 2010 installation “Sunflower Seeds” at Tate Modern in London, which had 100 million hand-painted porcelain seeds produced by 1,600 Chinese artisans. Weiwei emphasizes how artists should be in touch with their public, and communicates freedom of speech and expression. He has exhibited worldwide, such as at Tate London and the Hirshhorn Museum, and his work resides in many international permanent collections.