Between Citizenry and Privilege: Ai Weiwei and Bouchra Khalili

8.1 / Art + Citizenship

Between Citizenry and Privilege: Ai Weiwei and Bouchra Khalili

By Jordan Amirkhani November 10, 2016


In an age when rapidly intensifying globalization, migration, and the afterlife of colonization challenge traditional European-American notions of belonging in the aftermath of 9/11, citizenship has transformed to produce dynamic entanglements of inclusion and exclusion that have ignited national, racial, ethnic, and ideological tensions across the world.1 Meanwhile, new racisms, ethnic conflicts, and fundamentalisms mix with the unfettered operations of capital to produce ever-greater inequalities within and between nation–states. Transformed are the roles of nationally bounded social formations as well as the ability of the state to secure justice and belonging for others.

In the midst of this constellation of intersectional global crises, where borders, migrants, and refugees continue to float in spaces of non-belonging across the world, how are artists and institutions of art responding to these issues? This essay examines recent installations by two artists, Ai Weiwei and Bouchra Khalili, whose radically different responses to this global crisis demonstrate how works of art may either act as modes of resistance to the regressive forms of nation–state propaganda and racism that have thickened in the 21st century, or tread an ambiguous line between empathy and insensitivity in the effort to create aesthetic accounts of citizenry.


Citizenship, in practice, is as much about rights and responsibilities as it is the legal status that structures a subject–citizen’s identity and belonging in relation to both state and civil society.2 But a full account of the notion of citizenship in the 21st century is a fraught one. It must acknowledge and account for its opposites, failures, and limits: the absence, degradation, or negation of rights; the increasingly slippery legalized frameworks of non-personhood and outsiderness; and the lived experiences of those who fall outside the warm embrace of citizenry.

For the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, those who lack the “rights to rights”—minorities, dependents, undocumented migrants, refugees, and other categories of precariousness—deserve, but are often emptied of, their human dignities due to their non-status in the eyes of the state. As she asserts, “If a human being loses his political status, he should, according to the implications of the inborn and the inalienable rights of man, come under exactly the situation for which the declarations of such general rights provided. Actually the opposite is the case.”3


Over the past year, the Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei has turned his full attention to documenting, responding to, and creating public awareness of the international refugee crisis as a way to underscore the violent forms of inhumanity wielded against those living—or more precisely, those left to die—in vulnerable, liminal states of precarious citizenry. In winter 2015, after more than 1 million refugees entered Europe by land and sea, and as Europe was closing its borders, Weiwei visited the Greek island of Lesvos to witness the atrocities at the coast and participate in various humanitarian relief endeavors. Horrified at the insufficient or absent aid and financial resources available to humanitarian organizations and state-funded agencies struggling to handle the influx of refugees, deaths, medical emergencies, housing shortages, and required bureaucratic processing in the aftermath of the Syrian crisis, Weiwei called upon the European Union to account for, in his words, their “shameful and immoral” refugee policies. Unable to keep silent after the implementation of agreements between Brussels and Ankara to return migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey, which saw a dramatic decrease in the number of refugee arrivals in the aftermath of this legislation, Weiwei responded with a number of institutional installations and projects in Greece, Germany, and Austria, which were among the countries that bore the brunt of the refugee crisis.4

Ai Weiwei. Flags (Greece, EU, Shadow), 2016; satin cloth; 288.5 x 189 cm.; installation view. Courtesy of the Cycladic Museum of Art, Athens, Greece. Photo: Paris Tavitian.

For Weiwei’s 2016 museum residency and exhibition titled Ai Weiwei at Cycladic at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, the artist mined the museum’s collection of indigenous Greek archeological artifacts—including those from ancient Aegean civilizations along with Cycladic works—to frame a dialogue about collective history, memory, and the tragedy of contemporary humanitarian crises. While the exhibition took on a retrospective format, with works selected to highlight the breadth of Weiwei’s critical antagonism toward Chinese authoritarianism, it introduced a new body of his own work titled Flags (Greece, EU, Shadow) (2015–2016). This body expands his critical outlook to embrace the failure of European governments by appropriating and then remixing the ultimate iconic symbol of national identity and state belonging. In doing so, he recapitulates the problematic tensions arising from tens of thousands of migrants risking their lives to find safety under the flags of Europe. Two of the flags are inspired by the Greek national and the European Union flag—two governmental bodies struggling and failing to address the displaced. The third flag presents the contoured outline of the body of the 3-year-old Syrian Kurd, Alan Kurdi, whose drowned body was found on the coast near the Turkish town of Bodrum on September 2, 2015, after the boat he and his family were traveling in capsized just a few minutes after leaving the shore. Placed above the exterior entrance to the museum, the flags’ cheap fabric flails hysterically in the wind, their yellow and white colors inspired by the emergency blankets handed to new arrivals on the coast by aid workers and volunteers—poor, inadequate, absurd consolation prizes for surviving treacherous waters and an uncertain future.

Ai Weiwei. Installation Shot of the Portico of Berlin’s Konzerthaus, 2016; 1,005 orange-and-black lifejackets. Photo: Ai Weiwei/Instagram.

The photographic image of Kurdi’s body has continued to haunt global headlines as one of the most recognizable images of the international refugee crisis. The flag, once a metaphor or marker of the symbolic body of national social life, patriotism, and unity, has, under Weiwei’s hand, called attention to the disturbing transubstantiation between the flag as the body of a nation and the collective bodies of refugee Others, whose own physical selves are forced to live and exist outside the corporal bounds of the state. Taken further, Weiwei’s work points to a kind of death or drowning of historical notions of belonging that break down at the borders, crossings, and liminal territories where nation and refugee meet. In this context, the cheap hybrid flags swaying in the wind outside the museum serve as a reminder of the cruel, temporary conditions of safety and security that refugees fleeing war and economic hardship endure both physically and psychologically.  

However, as 2016 charged on, the number of Weiwei’s refugee-inspired projects increased, as did their emotional pitch. On February 14, 2016, the artist wrapped the columns of the Berlin Konzerthaus portico in 14,000 neon orange-and-black inflatable life jackets—a now-traumatic emblem of the thousands of refugee crossings and deaths—giving the work an abashedly overt, public-facing presentation.5 Despite the confrontational nature of the installation, the project’s unveiling was overshadowed by the star-studded museum gala, Cinema for Peace, at the Konzerthaus a few days later, during which Weiwei passed out emergency blankets to attendees and encouraged guests to take selfies with their schwag/protective coverings.6

Ai Weiwei and Rowlit Chawla. Weiwei on Lesvos Beach, 2016. Photo: Rowlit Chawla for India Today.

This overt insensitivity was compounded and complicated by Weiwei’s vulgar reenactment of the photograph of Alan Kurdi, with the help of the Indian photojournalist Rohit Chawla, which appeared in the news outlet India Today just a few days after the event. Igniting a controversy of epic proportions and calling attention to the ambiguous line between art, advocacy, and the aestheticization of suffering and oppression, Weiwei’s decision to take the photograph and subsequently exhibit it at an art fair in India was revealed in a video for the UN’s refugee agency. He states, “Alan Kurdi is not just one person. In the last year, in 2015, every day two persons just like him drowned. It is very important to put myself in that condition, and I always believe you have to be involved, you have to act.”7 Claimed to be a spontaneous act by the artist and his collaborator, the image very clearly proves the opposite. Weiwei’s pose and position when compared to the original image is uncannily accurate in its division between land and sea. His face is turned towards the lens with the static, unfocused gaze of someone dead, and the stark black-and-white image invokes the unsettling harmony between body and landscape, figure and ground, in Édouard Manet’s The Dead Toreador (1864). To pose, posture as, and restage an innocent toddler’s death, to continue the numbing reproduction of a viral image while swept up in a fleeting, euphoric moment of international spectacle, is not only misguided. As Andy Warhol, one of the most notable commentators on contemporary visual culture, reminded us, it’s also extremely dangerous: ”The more you look at the exact same thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel.”8

Ai Weiwei’s aesthetic responses to the refugee crisis in Europe point to the unequal conditions under which legal and subjective forms of citizenship and precarity matter. For citizenship is inevitably a modicum of privilege, with those who have it often wielding their voices, bodies, and visibility and accessibility to channels of power for, as well as without, the others for whom they speak. Weiwei’s own fraught relationship with his home country and particular condition of exile do not negate the privilege of his position as an internationally successful artist or absolve his unique mode of cultural freedom and relative security in the West, which gives him the space, resources, and attention that are attainable for his subjects. By harnessing a viewer’s attention and emotional investment in the image through pity, he bypasses any contextual elements of the causes or explanations for Kurdi’s death, and mobilizes the image to represent the entirety of the Syrian humanitarian crisis. In doing so, Weiwei turns the spotlight toward himself rather than prioritizing and creating space for the suffering to speak for themselves.


In a recent article, the feminist philosopher and cultural critic Margrit Shildrick asks, “What would it mean to look beyond citizenship—at least in its neoliberal form towards new concepts of belonging that might deal differently with issues of power, inequality, and difference that open up rather than restrict personal imagination and socio-cultural imaginaries?”9 While underscoring how citizenship is often structured on forms of exclusion and restriction, Shildrick posits a mode of collective belonging for the marginalized, misrecognized, and oppressed that honors feminist ethics of radical social transformation. These modes of shared community are being attended to most powerfully and ethically by displaced persons themselves. Their work provides a powerful antidote to the insensitive, appropriative forms of speaking and representing for those “who cannot speak,” articulations that are not discourse but mere white noise in relation to power.10

The photographic, film, and documentary-based work of the Moroccan-Algerian artist Bouchra Khalili has shaped a practice that carves out space and agency for those who have no power within current political conflicts, or who live in the liminal spaces and shadows of the nation–state. While Khalili has found myriad ways across her short career to address the inequalities apparent in the refugee and migrant experience, The Mapping Journey Project (2008–2011), her 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, privileges the voices and experiences of stateless peoples in addressing the questions and challenges inherent to developing ethical aesthetic forms of re-presenting citizenship and political agency. 

Bouchra Khalili. The Mapping Journey Project, 2008–11; eight-channel video, color, sound; installation view, Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 9–August 28, 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty First Century, 2014. © 2016 Bouchra Khalili. Digital image © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

For the project, Khalili produced a series of short films with testimonies and spoken narratives by refugees and migrants who were forced to travel illegally due to economic and political conflicts. The artist encountered these individuals by chance while in transit at various travel hubs. Featuring only the hands and voices of the eight participants (their faces purposively remain unseen), each individual testimony is projected onto a single screen in an atrium, a conscious formal decision that allows a viewer to listen and engage discretely with each speaker as well as acknowledge the shared, global network of geopolitical conflicts across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Her refusal to show the participants’ faces bypasses the portrait mandates of documentary aesthetics and the invasive forms of surveillance that these refugees are often submitted to. Instead, it turns a viewer’s attention to the powerful narrative content of individual experience. Hands trace illegal journeys made across water, land, borders, checkpoints, and camps, softly caressing the harsh, arbitrary boundaries where the state’s limits are recognized politically and felt subjectively.

The language the speakers use is collectively framed and ambiguously indirect, a potent reminder that for a majority of refugees and migrants across the world, their future is unsecure and will remain so for an indeterminate time: “I began here… People asked me to help them… We left from here… We arrived….”11 By delivering their chronicles of living outside or in-between the normative conditions of citizenship, these speakers shape a story structured by image that collapses the conditions of static, enclosed forms of representation. Instead, they form a constellation-like configuration in which sensible forms are mobilized to harness an interdependent, ethical, empathetic encounter between the viewer and the subject.12 Problematic emanations of passivity and othering that often accompany images of oppressed, voiceless people are reconfigured as an active co-production of compassionate, dialogic encounters that remind both viewer and viewed of our common state of being-in-the-world-together as well as the specificity of the obstacles and conditions migrants and refugees experience. Khalili’s thoughtful, precise navigation of the forms and ethics of representation turns away from charged, affected images of violence, suffering, and ambient montages so that subjects can create and represent themselves, thereby recovering their agency, dignity, and voice. “For it is the voice that catalyzes the conditions for change.”13


  1. The recent book Beyond Citizenship?: Feminism and the Transformation of Belonging, ed. Sasha Roseneil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), anchored my thoughts on citizenship in the 21st century and shaped much of my writing for this article.
  2. See the British sociologist T.H. Marshall’s iconic essay on social citizenship, “Citizenship and Social Class” (1949), in his book Citizenship and Social Class: And Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950).
  3. See Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Press, 1951), 296.
  4. See Mark Brown’s article, “Ai Weiwei Says EU’s Refugee Deal with Turkey Is Immoral,” in The Guardian (Online), May 19, 2016. Link:
  5. Weiwei began collecting the jackets on the coast of Lesvos in 2015.
  6.  Weiwei retranslated the Berlin project for Vienna’s Belvedere Palace in the summer of 2016. Titled F. Lotus, the installation used 1,005 life vests bundled and bound together like lotus blooms in an F-shaped configuration, and placed in an artificial, outdoor Baroque pond to float lazily in the extravagant gardens of the 17th-century imperial palace.
  7. See Ai Weiwei's video interview for the UN's refugee agency, sponsored by the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece. The video was released on May 21, 2015.
  8. Andy Warhol’s comment is taken from his co-written 1980 memoir with Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties (New York: Mariner Books, 2006).
  9. See Margrit Shildrick’s article, “Sexual Citizenship, Governance, and Disability: From Foucault to Deleuze,” in Beyond Citizenship?: Feminism and the Transformation of Belonging, ed. Sasha Roseneil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  10. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s text, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Champagne-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271–316. 
  11. See critic and curator Quinn Latimer’s short essay on Khalili’s MoMA installation, “Disregard the Forms: Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project,” in The Mapping Journey Project (2008–2011), ed. Quinn Latimer (New York: MoMA Press, 2016), 2.
  12. See Jacques Rancière’s text The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso Press, 2011).
  13. See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Press, 1968), 258.

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