Artist Ai Weiwei Calls Global Refugee Crisis A ‘Human Crisis’ | WBEZ
Skip to main content


Exclusive: Dissident Artist Ai Weiwei Talks Refugees, Human Rights and Chicago Exhibition

A few years ago, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei said he took his son to Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, under false pretenses.

“I told him it’s a vacation,” Ai said Monday on Worldview

“In reality, my son and my girlfriend, we were standing on the shore receiving refugees,” Ai said. “And that moment I decided to make a movie.”

The movie, Human Flow, would earn several nominations for documentary excellence in 2017. The film documents the immense scale of the global refugee crisis, tracking asylum seekers from 23 countries, including Syria, Kenya, Iraq, and Burma.

"This is a human crisis made by humans. We have to bear responsibility," Ai said of the world’s more than 65 million refugees. "How we look at the refugee situation really tells the world who we are and what kind of values we are defending."

Ai’s political and artistic criticism of the Chinese government has previously landed him in prison and on house arrest. He joined Worldview ahead of the opening of his new art exhibit, “Ai Weiwei: Trace in Chicago,” which opens on May 9 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. 

Worldview host Jerome McDonnell spoke with Ai about the refugee crisis, his film, and his latest book, Humanity. Below are highlights from the conversation. 

On his film Human Flow

Jerome McDonnell: What was your strategy with shooting this? And how do you give people dignity and figure in the beauty?

Ai Weiwei: I’m a poet and artist. Beauty, I cannot avoid. Even facing tragic moments or disaster — crisis — I think there’s always beauty and dignity in human suffering, because most of the world is suffering. And we have to give dignity to these people.

On how to address the refugee crisis

Ai: I think the answer’s very clear: This is a human crisis made by humans. We have to bear responsibility. We cannot just sell billions of billions of dollars of war machines or weapons to dangerous areas. You can easily understand politics if you follow the money. Who’s profited from all the world’s instability? 

It’s very clear. Certain nations have more responsibility than others. Also, you can never really trust politicians because they have their own interests, so democracy is not going to work if we don’t make the politicians work for us. 

So every citizen has to act — has to push the politicians. Politicians would never be working in democratic society without citizens making an effort. 

McDonnell: Is it a failure of our educational system or our values?

Ai: It’s a failure in every aspect. Educational, yes. And in our worldview, our values, and how we would survive with this sort of short-sighted and shameful position we are taking. 

This administration, they have only accepted 11 refugees from the Syrian war. But they’re also bombing Syria. They have military involvement. The picture looks like something is wrong with it. Anybody can understand. But very often people feel powerless because you have politicians, you have interest groups who are so powerful. 

McDonnell: How do we counter something like that? I know you’re very active in social media and you believe in bringing people together. Is there some way to combat what’s going on?

Ai: I think maybe for too long we’ve forgotten the real individual involvement to face politics. It’s very strange to take an artist to say that, but because of this lacking of channels to really express ourselves and to really act [to express our] very essential values, that’s made people feel powerless. But that should not be that way. 

If a person in this kind of society feels powerless, think about the refugee. They lost everything. They lost their language, their religion, everything they used to be familiar with. How could they even survive in this kind of society?

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire conversation, which was adapted for the web by producer Justin Bull.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.