As founding executive director of the FOR-SITE Foundation in San Francisco—a non-profit organization dedicated to the creation, presentation, and understanding of art about place—I have had the privilege of working with dissident Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei for over a decade.
During the past decade, Weiwei and I have become friends. In 2011, authorities detained the artist for his public outcries against the Chinese government’s disregard for human rights. I traveled to Beijing shortly after his release to offer support. Weiwei was weary, and described the immense sense of solitude he felt during his 81 days of confinement. It was an experience that would deeply inform his artistic practice. He asked me to find a platform that would bring his work to a far broader audience. In that instant, an idea took flight. I answered with a question: “What if I brought you a prison?”
And so we began working on @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, a monumental exhibition of new artworks addressing the struggle for fundamental human rights. From the outset, Ai Weiwei hoped the exhibition could include a call to action. This desire took form in Yours Truly, a project that would invite visitors to reach out to prisoners of conscience from around the world by sending them postcards. It was an effort to abate the sense of isolation that the artist understood so profoundly. At that time, though Weiwei was unable to travel beyond China due to restrictions imposed by his government, he was still envisioning creative new ways to connect and mobilize others on a global scale.
In order to bring Ai Weiwei’s call to action to new audiences, I began working on the feature documentary film Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly. While the exhibition @Large had reached nearly 900,000 visitors, as a first-time director, I was energized by the fact that a film could reach so many more people worldwide via theaters, film festivals, and streaming networks.
Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly tells the stories of several former prisoners of conscience featured in @Large who stood up for their beliefs and, by doing so, have inspired others to advocate for social change. These resilient and relatable individuals include John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who was imprisoned for exposing the use of torture by U.S. intelligence officers; Ahmed Maher, an activist and co-founder of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, which ultimately overthrew the government; and the family of Ebrahim Sharif Al Sayed, the former Secretary General of the Bahraini democratic reformist party. Weiwei and his mother, Gao Yang, shed new light on a childhood spent in exile and the genesis of the Yours Truly postcards, while interviews with human rights leaders help viewers understand how small acts can lead to significant change. Ultimately, I hope this project will encourage audiences to consider how they might contribute to the ongoing struggle for human rights.
San Francisco, California