For the first time, Amnesty International awarded their annual Ambassador of Conscience Award to a visual artist.
Ai Weiwei received the international honor, which was presented at an award ceremony Thursday night at the Berliner Festspiele in Berlin, in absentia. The artist can’t leave China, being under government surveillance and having his passport revoked.
In place, he designated London’s Tate Modern curator Chris Dercon to accept the award on his behalf. The award is devoted to human rights activists, proactive protesters who speak out and contrast Edmund Burke's famed statement that “all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to stand by and do nothing.”
As it turned out, Dercon called Ai Weiwei’s six-year-old son, Ai Lao, to join him at the awards ceremony. Ai Lao jumped on the public stage for the very first time (“aside from classroom presentations,” said his mom) to accept the award and say into the microphone, “I really hope my dad gets his passport back.”
Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon and Ai Weiwei's son Ai Lao accepting the award on the artist's behalf.
Courtesy: Amnesty International / Henning Schacht
This year, the Ambassador of Conscience Award was given to Ai Weiwei alongside American folk singer, Joan Baez, who has released 30 albums over the past 50 years. Patti Smith showed her support, introducing Baez’s award with a tearful recitation of the singer and activist’s accomplishments, which range from performing at rallies alongside Sammy Davis Jr. to singing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 before Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech “I Have A Dream.”
“We have to keep being a thorn in the side of injustice and to draw as much blood as we can,” said Smith. “Life seems more corrupt than ever but I pin my faith on new generations.”
The Ambassador of Conscience Award, founded in 2003, recognizes human rights leadership. Previous winners include Nelson Mandela, U2, and Peter Gabriel. This year, the Art for Amnesty director Bill Shipsey was happy to announce the award went to two cultural heroes “who are not only activists but also artists,” he said.
Curator Cheryl Haines presented a touching speech on working with Ai Weiwei on his Alcatraz exhibition (the back of her glittery gold coat read “Ai Can’t Be Here”). “It’s a great privilege for working with Ai Weiwei, but it became much more than an art project,” she said. “He couldn’t leave the country and I had to go to Beijing six times. I remember asking him how I could help. He said, ‘You can help bring my art to a broader audience.’”
Since detained and beaten without charge in 2010 and 2011, Ai Weiwei is censored on the internet in China after inspiring a politically-critical, individualistic movement through his artwork. Instead of winning a gob of cash—it isn’t a money award—“Weiwei is using the award to address the fate of those who have given much more than he does and speaking up for other people,” said Dercon.
Activists the artists considers in way worse situations than himself include civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who faces eight years of prison, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize-winning poet Liu Xiaobo, journalist Gao Yu, women’s rights activist Su Changlan, activist Liu Ping, and academic Ilham Tothti.
Smith offered some insight on her own ways of helping. “My activism is just in the form of smiles, prayers, singing a song, helping a kid get up who has fallen down,” she said. “You have to do something little every day, no matter how small it is.”
(Image at top: Patti Smith and Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon, who accepted the Ambassador of Conscience Award on Ai Weiwei's behalf this week. Photo: Nadja Sayej)