14 March 2016, 12:00AM

With over the three years of writing the Samoa Arts Council Arts Page I attempt to not only talk about what is going on in the arts Samoa community, but also regionally, internationally AND what art is about? 

Artists need the freedom to create and in many countries they are not given freedom of expression. Recently a fellow artist was attacked for her work and threatened with exclusion from her home country –Samoa, by some irate individual on Face Book. Artists do not create works to please the masses, their view on life and culture may be not the view of the masses, but without freedom of expression where are we going as a nation and a people? God - forbid that Samoa puts artists in straight jackets and place restriction on their subject matter and how they express themselves. 

Having just watched Samoa come through an election in relative calm and peace I could not help thinking of artists living and working in dictatorships where freedom of speech is forbidden. There are a number of artists I admire greatly for their fortitude and commitment to their artistic practice and also the risks many of them take in order to express their countries histories, political and social realities. Many of these artists’ works speak directly to concerns relating to human rights, corruption, social injustices, wealth and poverty, gender, sexuality and abuse, some of them are mainstream artists and others are urban street artists. 


In the Pacific Rim and the Pacific region, social landscapes evolved due to economic change. Financial expansion was brought on by globalisation, authoritarian regimes; advanced capitalistic strategies resulted in growing middle classes spurred on by advances in public education, and other factors. Urbanisation in predominantly rural countries altered the social fabric in both the countryside and cities, giving birth to a new class of urban poor and dispossessed rural dwellers. Acute social problems, paired with a growing disparity between rich and poor, provoked many to challenge the status quo and modify their traditional relationship with authority. The new affluence of the growing middle classes promoted confidence, which in turn generated a more pronounced awareness of the region’s lack of civil society, social justice and gender equality. Issues artists are passionate about and write about and make art on. 

Today I feature internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an artist who has suffered significantly because of his personal and political commentary concerning numerous abuses in his home country and now his focus is extending to international loss of human rights. Ai is a Chinese artist who has been applauded in the West and incarcerated in China.  He has received enormous international acclaim by exposing corruption and loss of freedom in China. Ai is a multi-disciplinary artist who uses installation, print, sculpture and music and film to reach his audience. 

In So Sorry/ Remembering (2008/2009) the subject matter is the 2008, 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan, in China resulting in the deaths of thousands of school children. Ai exposes the cover-up of the number of children killed, and the shoddy workmanship that is evident in thousands of schools due to poor government construction regularity laws. Over nine thousand children were killed and their loss and was swept under the mat. So Sorry refers to lack of heartfelt governmental apologies to the families coupled with corporations’ lack of responsibility for their actions. Exhibited in Munich at the Haus de Kunst, the installation is made up of nine thousand backpacks arranged to spell out the words “she lived happily for seven years in this world.” His lament was that the children died and were soon forgotten – the families were bereft forever, yet the construction engineers were never held to answer for the loss of life and anguish they created. 

Two months before the opening of this exhibition Ai suffered a severe beating from Chinese police in Chengdu in August 2009, where he was trying to testify for Tan Zuoren, a fellow investigator of the shoddy construction and the student casualties. Ai underwent emergency brain surgery for internal bleeding as a result of the assault. 

Ai Weiwei’s physical abuse by the Chinese government did not stop there. He was imprisoned for a variety of bogus reasons. S.A.C.R.E.D. shown at the Vienna Biennale in 2013 is an installation comprising of six iron boxes placed where pews should be at the Church of Sant’Antonin in Venice. They are big—5×12 feet and nearly 2.5 tons each—and hulking and sort of out of place in the context of their beautiful, peaceful surroundings. On closer inspection there is a slight slit in the metal, leading the viewer to the lifelike dioramas of a man inside a prison cell. In 2011 Ai spent eighty-one days in prison on trumped up allegations of tax evasion. Instead of keeping him quiet Ai set to after he was released and created works that examined every aspect of his experience in solitary detention. 

Ai Weiwei depicts painstakingly detailed scenes of how he spent his days; intimate moments of him sleeping on a white cot, being interrogated by officers, being watched as he eats food, and uses the bathroom. The minutiae, from the clothes hanging in his closet to the white padding on his cell walls, were reconstructed from Ai’s memory. “He was watched all the time during his detention under obsessive surveillance at a very close proximity,” says Maurizio Bortolotti, curator S.A.C.R.E.D. “Through his dioramas he upturns this situation, making us the viewers watching the guards who are in turn watching him.”

In more recent works Ai has collected 14,000 life jackets from Lesbos, and used them to wrap the pillars of the Berlin Concert Hall, in remembrance of the thousands of refugees who have drowned making the dangerous journey to Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration, 3,700 asylum seekers died crossing the Mediterranean in 2015. 

This is Ai’s response to the crisis is stripping refugees of their “basic human rights”. Ai Weiwei, highlights social issues, and has repeatedly visited the Greek island of Lesbos since the beginning of the refugee crisis. He states that “My impression is that they are completely being neglected and their very basic rights are being neglected. Refugees are not slaves - they have dignity, they are just like you and me. They come from the war, a war caused by many, many politicians for all kinds of reasons. But they are the victimised by this war. They come to Europe just for a moment of peace. I talked to many of them - they never really want to stay here. “ He has extended his critique now to Australia, Denmark (where he closed an exhibition in protest at Denmarks’ approval to limit refugees to their country). 

Finally in words from the artist himself:  “My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. It is never about exhibiting in museums or about hanging it on the wall. Art should live in the heart of the people. Ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anybody else. I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.”


Dr. Vanya Taule’alo writes & edits the Observer Art Page for the Samoa Arts Council (SAC). Guided by SAC’s vision “to envisage a future where the Arts Sector is fully developed for the benefit of Samoa”, the page promotes all forms of art and promotes the arts in the Samoan community. For more information on SAC see samoaartscouncil.com and Samoa Arts

14 March 2016, 12:00AM

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