Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

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Washington Square N btw 5 Ave & Macdougal

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 on the island of Lesvos, Greece, which has served as the entry point into Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Senegal, Syria, Somalia, Cameroon, and elsewhere. Most of those who reach Lesvos after making the perilous journey across the narrow strait that separates the island from Turkey end up at the Moria Camp for their asylum paperwork to be processed. Formerly a detention center, Moria Camp was turned into an official refugee camp in March 2015, intended to accommodate only 1,500 people. At its most crowded, its population is approximately 5,000 as refugees wait for asylum.

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: Moria Camp, Lesvos, Greece.

Courtesy of the artist.

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