Ai Weiwei inspiring exhibition visitors to open their eyes. Photograph courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

By Tara Biglari

Iranian political activists, depicted in LEGO® blocks, are among the works by the outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei featured in his “Trace” exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Using the ubiquitous miniature toy building blocks, Ai Weiwei has created 176 portraits of individuals he considers to be prisoners of conscience, human rights defenders, and activists.

Included among them are 26 Iranians: from peaceful protesters to political figures.

The prominent artist has been highly critical of his home country over the years, and in 2011 spent 81 days in detainment. He now lives and works between Berlin and Beijing.

Journalist and human rights activist, Shiva Nazar Ahari (foreground) on the floor of “Zone 3” at the “Trace at Hirshhorn” exhibition in Washington, D.C. Photograph: Tara Biglari

A unique aspect of the exhibition is Ai Weiwei’s decision to create a room almost entirely dedicated to the Iranian contingent. Titled ‘Zone 3,’ all but three of the 29 characters featured in the space are Iranians.

Many of these prisoners of conscience are journalists and human-rights activists, including Bahareh Hedayat, a student and women’s rights activist, and Mohammad Seddigh Kaboudvand, an Iranian-Kurdish human rights activist and journalist. Others have been persecuted for their religious beliefs, namely for being members of Yaran, a leadership group for the Baha’i community, including teacher Vahid Tizfahm and psychologist Fariba Kamalabadi.

Ai Weiwei also portrays individuals who sought to bring about change from within Iran’s government, including Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, a cleric who advocates for the separation of religion and government in the Iranian political system, and the late Ebrahim Yazdi, a pro-democracy Iranian politician and diplomat, who served as deputy Prime Minister in the 1970s.

Iranians are the highest nationality represented in the exhibition after China.

Faran Hesami (nearest camera), a Baha’i educator, released from prison in April 2016 after being sentenced to imprisonment for four years in Iran. Photograph: Tara Biglari

The “Trace at Hirshhorn” exhibition as a whole takes up multiple rooms across the circular third floor of the Hirshhorn. Initially presented on Alcatraz Island in 2014, it contains updated information about the dissidents who are portrayed. The 176 individuals are brought to life through portraits spread on the floor, which appear to be pixellated due to the rectangular shape of the blocks. Like Ai Weiwei, these individuals have also been persecuted by their respective governments. By using the ever-popular building blocks, the artist ensures his images are seen in a universal ‘language.’

Denmark’s LEGO® company initially refused Ai WeiWei’s bulk order of plastic bricks in 2015, citing an unwillingness to get involved in political matters. A public campaign was launched by Ai Weiwei who, supported by his numerous Internet followers, cited free speech in their bid to reverse the decision. This proved successful, as a few months later, the Danish company completed the order. Upon receiving the shipment, Ai Weiwei moved to build each image by hand, enlisting the help of more than 80 volunteers.

The exhibition runs through January 1, 2018. For more information about the individuals on show or the exhibition itself, visit the Hirshhorn website.


Video: Erin Patrick O’Connor/The Washington Post