Immigrant protest at Palazzo Strozzi confirms significance of Ai Weiwei's Reframe

A group of immigrants occupy Ai Weiwei's 'Free' exhibition in protest: perhaps it was the best confirmation of the significance of the 'Reframe' installation.

It will surely seem inappropriate to talk about art when, in the middle, there is the life of a person, whose importance is not even comparable to that of a work of art. But what has happened today in Florence is perhaps the best response that could have been given to those who, in recent months, have raised controversy about the meaning and value of Reframe, Ai Weiwei ’s installation on the facade of Palazzo Strozzi included in the path of the Libero exhibition. Various accusations have been levelled at the Chinese artist: from being clever to simply being an opportunist for making the pain of migrants a sort of trademark. Yet, today, those same migrants who seem so distant from our daily lives, so divorced from our reality, and whose tragedies often constitute no more than a topic to discuss five minutes after the end of the 8 p.m. news, have chosen precisely the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition as the place to symbolically occupy to protest against a state whose negligence, according to the occupiers, is behind the death of Alì Muse, a Somali immigrant who lost his life in the fire of the abandoned shed in which he was living with other migrants. He had returned, despite the flames, to retrieve documents that would allow his family to be reunited with him.

Reframe di Ai Weiwei
Reframe by Ai Weiwei

For many, Reframe was primarily a way the artist used to get people talking about him, to gain even more fame, to drive up the prices of his works. Yet we at Windows on Art have always had faith in Ai Weiwei. True, he is an extremely self-referential artist, to the point of being repeatedly accused of victimhood. But how can the message of an artist who has experienced persecution and discrimination firsthand, from the earliest years of his existence, not be sincere? Certainly it is very significant that a group of migrants chose the building where his exhibition is being held as the theater of protest. It means that the message, to someone, got through. But not only that: it was grasped by those who, in those dinghies, probably recognize themselves, because that is where they passed through to get to Italy. Yes, they are not the same as the ones they boarded, but it does not matter. They still have a clear understanding of what those dinghies mean. They know what it means to have pinned all their hopes on those dinghies, to have suffered hunger, thirst, torment, torture, to have lost affections, to have made a dangerous and very risky journey in order to be able to obtain better living conditions.

La protesta degli immigrati a Palazzo Strozzi
The immigrants’ protest at Palazzo Strozzi. Photo distributed under Creative Commons license by Firenze Post
They certainly don’t care about our henhouse quarrels. While we argue about futile topics, starting with the miserable distinction of treatment to be possibly given to “political migrants” and “economic migrants” (as if there were a series A and a series B for those trying to build a rosier future), to continue with the alleged “defacement” of the facade of Palazzo Strozzi, there are people who have to occupy an abandoned shed on the outskirts of Florence in order to live (or try to live). And they have to see their friend, their partner, their relative die, because obviously an abandoned former furniture factory is not exactly the highest standard of safety. However, in the face of tragedy and adversity, these immigrants have found a symbol around which to gather. Peacefully, in a composed manner, and apologizing to visitors to the exhibition, “we are not angry with you, but with the Italian state.” A great show of civility to those of us who often rail against their presence, chiding them that they have arrived in a civilized country. And that symbol is a work mocked for its form, criticized for its substance.

Now we may continue to argue about whether Ai Weiwei’s is not art. About the fact that he is called upon by curators and museum directors because his productions are particularly fashionable. About whether his self-referentiality is more or less bearable. On the fact that his installations are more akin to a politician’s rallies than to an artist’s production. But in the face of a spontaneous gathering of migrants who, we repeat, know what those dinghies mean and who choose them as a symbol of their protest, it seems to us that the accusations of cunning and opportunism fall. Because those dinghies were chosen as a means to forcefully shout to the country what miserable conditions many of the people we are supposed to be taking in are in. And, as a result, Ai Weiwei has become an artist capable of conveying values. It is perhaps trite and even rhetorical to state this. But it may not be useless: if in the coming days these people are found a more dignified accommodation, as they requested, some of the credit, perhaps, will also be due to that installation on the facade of Palazzo Strozzi.

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