2 Ave btw E 4 & 5 St
Ai Weiwei’s citywide exhibition uses existing elements of urban infrastructure as platforms for public art. Lamppost banners display a series of 200 portraits of immigrants and refugees. Unlike typical printed advertisements, the artist created unique double-sided banner portraits by cutting black vinyl to make images appear in the portions that remain. Their play of positive and negative space is analogous to the often-ambiguous status of refugees and migrants. The series encompasses many groups by spanning several periods and locales. It includes historic images from Ellis Island, photographs of notable refugees, formal portraits by Ai Weiwei’s studio from the Shariya camp in Iraq, and the artist’s cell phone photographs taken at refugee camps and national borders around the world. The banners portray people from varied backgrounds, yet each is presented in a consistent format, emphasizing their shared humanity.
This portrait depicts a refugee from the Dadaab Camp, in Garissa County, Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp. This camp, established in 1991, has a population of 350,000, far exceeding its original capacity of 90,000. The origin of these refugees is primarily from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Citing reasons of national security, authorities have threatened to close the camp, which would displace hundreds of thousands of individuals and families, forcing many to return to war-torn Somalia.
Ai and his team’s extensive research and visits to refugee camps and national borders around the world have yielded an enormous trove of compelling documentation. Much of this is produced by the artist’s nearly constant use of his cell phone to spontaneously photograph the people and scenes around him.
Location: Dadaab Camp, Kenya
Courtesy of the artist.