This Artist Re-created the Most Horrifying Scene From the Refugee Crisis

Ai Weiwei’s restaging of the photograph of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi is garnering mixed reactions online.

Ai Weiwei. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Feb 1, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

The photo of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach ignited global outrage over the refugee crisis last fall and spawned dozens of artistic tributes from comics and illustrators all over the world. Now, one of the world’s most famous artists is putting his spin on one of the most iconic images of the last year.

Ai Weiwei was photographed lying face down on the pebble-dotted shore of Lesbos, Greece, last week in a re-creation of the photograph of Kurdi. Staged by Ai and his team for a feature in India Today magazine, the photo was shown last weekend at the India Art Fair in an exhibition organized by the magazine, The Washington Post reported.

While the image is likely intended as a tribute to the toddler and the thousands of other refugees who have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, it has garnered mixed reactions online, with some saying it’s in poor taste.

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

An outspoken advocate for refugees, Ai relocated this year to a studio on Lesbos to create work that is informed by and raises awareness about the global crisis and the asylum seekers risking their lives to flee war and persecution in their native countries. India Today senior editor Gayatri Jayaraman told the Post that when she offered to meet the Chinese dissident at his studio for the interview, he refused, insisting that the seashore was his studio.

“He is very warm and humble, but his very presence there in that situation as tired, cold, wet refugees arrived was colossal. And very political,” Jayaraman said, explaining that Ai would wait for boats to arrive at the shore and help refugees onto the land. He also salvaged pieces of the boats to use in a future art installation. Ai has been sharing images of the ramshackle boats and inflatable rafts on his Instagram account, where he also posts portraits of refugees on their arrival to Greece.

Like the Greek island of Kos, which Kurdi’s family had been trying to reach, Lesbos is home to a major port city where more than half a million refugees arrived last year, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of all Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR are children, and aid organizations estimate that the number of unaccompanied refugee children in Europe is somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000.

Ai’s re-created photograph is the latest in a series of projects and actions designed to draw attention to the global crisis. Just last week, the artist shuttered his exhibition at a Danish gallery in protest of the country’s new law, which allows police to confiscate refugees’ belongings if they are valued at more than 10,000 kroner, or about $1,452. The move came four months after he joined Indian artist Anish Kapoor in staging a march through London in solidarity with refugees.

The praise for Ai’s tribute is hardly unanimous. On Twitter, some have questioned whether restaging the photo provides any new layer of understanding or context than the original, which was captured by a Turkish press photographer. Artnet writer Henri Neuendorf critiqued Ai’s work as crass and “a new low” for the artist, writing in an essay on Monday that his “attempt to capitalize on the heartbreaking fate of a young child is truly tasteless.” Art writer Niru Ratnam echoed that sentiment. In an essay for the British newspaper The Spectator, he argued that while Ai may have been well-intentioned, the resulting image was “crude, thoughtless, and egotistical.”