“Once you’ve tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and no one can take it. Then, you can be more powerful than a whole country.” — Ai Weiwei
The life of Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) speaks to the beauty and resilience of the poetic soul. Born in Beijing, China, Ai Weiwei’s mother is writer Gao Ying. Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing (1910-1996), was a noted poet and intellectual, active under the Communist rule of chairman Mao Zedong. In retaliation for the elder Ai’s perceived political beliefs, the family was sent into exile in northwest China when Ai Weiwei was barely one year old; first to a labor camp, then to Shihezi, Xinjiang, in the Gobi Desert where the family lived until Ai Weiwei was 17. He has described the conditions while in exile as “extremely harsh.” His father was forced to perform hard labor, including cleaning the communal latrines. The family was allowed to keep one book, an encyclopedia, which was Ai Weiwei’s only formal educational resource until they returned to Beijing following Mao’s death in 1976.
Upon returning to Beijing, Ai Weiwei became involved with the avant-garde scene, but it wasn’t until his arrival in the United States in 1981 that he began large-scale experimentation with alternative media and form. Following time spent at the University of Pennsylvania and University of California, Berkeley studying English, Ai settled in New York, where he would remain for the next 10 years.