Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Recreates Photo of Drowned Syrian Refugee Toddler

Photo by Rohit Chawla for India Today.
Photo by Rohit Chawla for India Today.

In September 2015, Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir came across the body of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi on a beach. Her photo of Kurdi’s body spread across the world, drawing the world’s attention to the migrant crisis and becoming a symbol of the widespread suffering.

This month, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei decided to recreate that haunting photo by posing for a picture while lying face down on a pebbled beach in Lesbos, Greece. The resulting photo, captured by photographer Rohit Chawla for India Today, is now drawing both praise and criticism.

The Washington Post reports that Ai’s photo was “the toast” of the India Art Fair in an exhibition titled “The Artists,” with huge numbers of people lining up in front of the work.

“It is an iconic image because it is very political, human and involves an incredibly important artist like Ai Weiwei,” Sandy Angus, the co-owner of the art fair, tells the Post. “The image is haunting and represents the whole immigration crisis and the hopelessness of the people who have tried to escape their pasts for a better future.”

Ai Weiwei in 2007. Photo by Hafenbar.
Ai Weiwei in 2007. Photo by Hafenbar.

Ai, who is in Lesbos to work on a new art project focused on refugees, says the idea for the photo came about spontaneously.

“The photographer and journalist asked me to pose for a photo near the beach and to close my eyes,” Ai tells CNN. “We had talked about the image of the boy, so I had that on my mind.”

“I was standing there and I could feel my body shaking with the wind — you feel death in the wind. You are taken by some kind of emotions that you can only have when you are there. So for me to be in the same position [as Kurdi], is to suggest our condition can be so far from human concerns in today’s politics.”

While many people are praising Ai for drawing attention back to the issue and the photo of Kurdi, there has been sharp criticism as well. Some important figures in art and media have called the photo “crass,” “disrespectful,” and “tasteless.”

“The artist’s attempt to capitalize on the heartbreaking fate of a young child is truly tasteless,” writes Henri Neuendorf of artnet. “It is important to raise awareness on an undoubtedly urgent issue, but this is not the right way to do it.”