Dissident Art of Ai Wei Wei (2)

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 06 November 2019

The first part of this post was about the earlier works of celebrated Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei presented in an exhibition called Raiz (Roots) held in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) this year. This second part of the post focuses on his works created between 2015 and 2018, and presented in this exhibition.

Forever Bicycles by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The works of the artist from this period show a transformation - from his criticisms of the regime in China, he moved on to other themes afflicting humanity, from wars, refugee crisis to climate change. His latest works from his period in Brazil are even more personal, looking at sexuality and cultures.

Expressing Dissidence

The first works of Wei Wei after his release from the house-arrest in Beijing were understandably about the period of that arrest, though they continued to be ironic and symbolic, like the installation called Forever Bicycles presented in the image above. This installation was made from one thousand stainless steel bicycles. These represented personal freedom and its title, "Forever", referred to a brand of bicycles common in China when Wei Wei was growing up with his father in the exile.

His next work from 2015 was Blossom, a carpet made from hundreds of porcelain flowers made by joining 16 panels. This installation also referred to the period of his house arrest, when as a way of protest, he had decided to put every morning some flowers in the basket of a bicycle parked in front of his home. Thus, Blossom represents the flowers of his protest.

Blossom, a porcelain sculpture by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

War and Refugees

After his release from house arrest in China, in 2015 Wei Wei had relocated to Berlin in Germany. That brought him in contact with the refugees who were pouring into Europe from the war-torn middle-east and whom the European countries were refusing to accept. Wei Wei felt the cries for help of the refugees, probably because he was also a refugee, though a fortunate one, since he had been accepted in Europe because of his celebrity status and because of being a known Chinese dissident.

In 2015 itself, Wei Wei visited the island of Lesbos in Greece and saw the shoreline littered with life-jackets and buoys of Syrian refugees trying to enter Europe. His 2016 marble sculpture Tyre is a "monument to the lost" remembering those who risked everything to seek a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

Tyre - a marble sculpture by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

During 2016-17, Wei Wei travelled to 23 countries and 40 refugee camps. Out of these visits came his film "The Human Flow". In the same period, he also produced different other art works on this theme.

His next work on the theme of refugees is titled Odyssey and is a wallpaper which traces the stories of human migrations from the time of the Old Testament, through the pictorial techniques of antique Greek and Egyptian carvings and panels. The banner of this post presents a part of this wallpaper,while the image below presents another detail from it.

Odyssey - a wallpaper by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

There was another work on the theme of refugees in this exhibition titled "Refugee motif pillar of vases". It has 6 Qinghua blue and white vases, crafted in Jiangxi province of China in the antique Ming style. Like the wallpaper, the vases touch on 6 themes - war, ruins, journey, crossing the sea, refugee camps and demonstrations.

Refugee motif Pillar of Vases by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

Brazilian Works

In 2017, Wei Wei visited South America many times to plan some of his exhibitions. In Brazil, he became interested in forests and specifically in a tree species called Pequi. He decided to make a mould of a 1200 years old, 31 metres high Pequi tree in a forest reserve in Bahia state. From his stay in Brazil and the enormous work related to the Pequi tree, a series of other art works have been produced, starting with the works called Raiz (Roots) which had given the title of this Brazilian exhibition and were presented in part one of this post.

The next image shows the roots part of another art work on Pequi tree, with a human figure, which gives an idea of the height of this tree.

A Pequi tree by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The next image shows traditional votive wood sculptures (2018) made by artisans of Juazeiro do Norte in Brazil inspired by Wei Wei's art work.

Zuazeiro do Norte sculptures - Image by Sunil Deepak

The next image has Taifeng, a mythical creature from the old Chinese tales of Shanhaijing (the Classic of Mountains and Seas). It is made from Bamboo and silk and is inspired by the traditional Chinese kite-making traditions.

Taifeng by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

The next installation has Two Figures (2018) in white plaster - the male figure is moulded on Wei Wei himself, while the female figure is moulded on a model. Close to the head of male figure, there is a heap of Armosia seeds, which reminded Wei Wei of seeds he had seen in Gobi desert as a child. Through this sculpture, Wei Wei touched on the ostensible sexuality in Brazilian culture and to his own intense dreams during his stay in Brazil.

Two Figures by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak


The Raiz (Roots) exhibition in Rio de Janeiro was a great opportunity to see different art works of Ai Wei Wei and thus get a more holistic idea of his art-world and artistic journey. Reading about his provocative exploits of breaking ancient urn or covering antique vases with paint, gives a certain idea about the person. His constant rebellion against the Chinese government but at the same time, finding a gentle and ironic way of rebelling, shows a maturing of the person. His works on climate and refugees, shows a widening of views where his personal journey is placed in the context of similar journeys of millions of other human beings. Finally, over the past couple of years, his exploration of his sexuality adds a personal dimension to his artistic journey.

To conclude this post, I want to present another of his personal art - a poster called Mutuophagia or the reciprocal eating, which has strong elements of the sensory and sexual world through the blood red water melons, the strategically placed bananas and the female figure on the extreme left. He is also talking about inter-mixing of cultures and gaining from different cultures, which is a criticism of the current politically correct mode of looking down at "cultural appropriations".

Mutuophagia by Ai Wei Wei - Image by Sunil Deepak

For me, coming across the Wei Wei exhibition in Rio de Janeiro was a case of serendipity. I had no idea that it was there and I saw it just by chance. I would count it among my most wonderful art-experiences. If you haven't already seen the first part of this post, you can check it now.


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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com