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Chinese artist’s refugee memorial ‘can help put spotlight on crisis’

Instagram, Ai Weiwei | Chinese artist Ai Weiwei takes a selfie with Syrian refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has announced plans to build a memorial on the Greek island of Lesbos to highlight the plight of refugees. Locals and aid workers welcomed the move, saying Ai’s star power may trigger further action to end the crisis.


Ai told reporters of his plans during a press conference in Athens on New Year’s Day after having spent several days documenting the crisis currently unfolding on Lesbos.

The tiny island in the northern Aegean sea has become the main entry point for hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to make it to Europe over the past year.

More than half of the 850,000 people reaching Greek shores over the past 12 months have come through Lesbos, putting an immense strain on the island’s infrastructure. The vast majority of the refugees have fled war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

"A lot of people have lost their lives under the waves," Ai told reporters in Athens on Friday. "We need a memorial," he said, referring to the near 3,800 people who lost their lives while making the perilous sea crossing to Europe in 2015.

"This is a very historical moment from any perspective. As an artist I want to be more involved, I want to (create) artworks in relation to the crisis and also create some kind of consciousness about the situation," he said.

Ai, who has made his name as much through his clashes with Chinese authorities as through his art, has already set up a studio on the island where he said he and his students aim to create several projects on the refugee-crisis theme.

"As an artist, I have to relate to humanity's struggles...I never separate these situations from my art," he said.

It was not immediately clear whether Ai had received authorisation for a memorial from local authorities.

‘Will help put us on the map’

Melinda McRostie, a restaurateur on Lesbos and a member of the Starfish Foundation aid group, told FRANCE 24 that although many of the locals don’t necessarily know who Ai is, “it is great that he will use his art to bring awareness to the plight of the refugees".

"This will help put us on the map," she said.

Itayi Viriri, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said it was important that the plans to build a memorial for those that had perished in the waters “wouldn’t turn into a spectacle”, but noted Ai’s weight as a renowned international artist could help make a difference.

“Sometimes people can be touched by art,” he said, adding that “by turning the spotlight on the problem via his work, we can always hope that it will bring the refugees better protection and trigger action against the people who harm them, like human traffickers and smugglers.”

Europe's response to the migrant crisis has so far been deeply divided, with some countries opting to introduce new border controls, while others, like Germany and Sweden, have vowed to keep more of an open-door policy. Meanwhile, thousands of refugees are estimated to be stuck in Greece.

“Unless we see dramatic changes, the situation we’ve seen with migrants and refugees in 2015 is likely to continue also in 2016,” Viriri warned.

Fluorescent peace sign

During his late December visit to Lesbos, 58-year-old Ai tweeted and instagrammed dozens of photos of himself together with migrants and volunteers, garnering thousands of likes, reactions and reposts on social media platforms.

In one photo, the artist held up a child-size life jacket left behind on the beach in a symbolic gesture to illustrate the human cost of the migrant crisis.

But Ai is not the only one wishing to draw attention to the daily flow of men, women and children arriving to Lesbos by the boatloads in unseaworthy rubber dinghies.

On New Year’s Day, some 100 volunteers from Greenpeace used some 3,000 discarded lifejackets to build a huge fluorescent peace sign on one of the hills of the island. The installation was later removed, however, as the group did not have permission to leave it there.

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