Arts, Civil Rights, News

Alcatraz Art Exhibit Shows Mandela and King as Heroes of Political Dissent

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By Rosemary Eng

SAN FRANCISCO—-Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who vexes the Chinese government so much that he is banned from attending a major exhibition of his work in San Francisco, chose to specially show Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as examples of heroic political dissent.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in logo at an art exhibition on Alcatraz.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in LEGO bricks at an art exhibition on Alcatraz. Photos by Rosemary Eng

Housed in the infamous prison which is now part of a national park, the installation @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz uses the stark prison setting to focus on the plight of all those incarcerated because of what they think or say.

Most of the political dissenters named in the exhibit fit under Amnesty International’s definition of prisoners of conscience. Though they do not fall under that definition, Ai specifically wanted Dr. King and Nelson Mandela to be included.

Dr. King appears in the exhibition twice, once in the LEGO bricks portraits of 176 people around the world imprisoned or exiled because of what they believe in or said.

In Alcatraz A Block, visitors can step into individual

Alcatraz cell where art is being shown.
Alcatraz cell where art is being shown.

cells to hear speeches, poetry and music by dissidents. In one of those cells Dr. King can be heard delivering his speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.”

In the former prison dining hall visitors can choose among postcards pre-addressed to imprisoned dissidents. An @Large guide said receipt of the postcards has prompted in some cases the release of prisoners when it becomes apparent in those countries that people around the world are aware of the imprisonments.

For those in prison isolation, the postcards send a message to these people in isolation that they are not forgotten.

The @Large show was presented with the support of San Francisco’s For-Site Foundation. Staff at For-Site has been reporting public response to Ai during the duration of the show.

Though final attendance numbers will not be calculated until after the show ends April 26, it is expected the last annual figure of 1.3 million visits to Alcatraz Island will easily be surpassed.

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