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Between Ai Weiwei and Bashar al-Assad, we wonder

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26.04.2018

On a fine early afternoon in late March a young German-Iranian friend and I walked into the Garage Gallery at the Fire Station in Doha, Qatar - and we wondered.

We were there to see the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's "Laundromat": "A traveling installation", as the official description of the exhibition says, "that brings the current European migrant crisis into sharp focus." We had read before that "the work is centered around a vast makeshift camp near the village of Idomeni, on the border with the Republic of Macedonia. As part of his recently released documentary Human Flow, Ai Weiwei has borne witness to the brutal plight of refugees worldwide."

Borne witness? Does the brutal plight of refugees worldwide - those from Syria in particular - need a witness? Surely. But how - we wondered. How can an artist, a work of art, transcend the mundane materiality of human wherewithal (a brush, a camera, a pen, a pair of washed and ironed pants) to reach for the quintessence of a man-made calamity? If the principle (but by no means the only) culprit of the Syrian catastrophe is Bashar al-Assad, what can Ai Weiwei teach us to better bear witness to the crooked timber of our time?

Ai Weiwei is a dissident Chinese artist who has become globally famous by virtue of European and US honorary awards bringing close attention to his work. No doubt he is a gifted artist deserving all the US and European accolades he keeps receiving. If you were to follow the list of awards he has received, you see his name appearing next to such suspect political figures like Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and the US' Hillary Clinton.

None of these should, of course, be held against Ai Weiwei. He just happens to be top of the list for European and US joints giving top prizes to dissidents in China or Russia. They deeply care about "the human rights situation" around the world except in Palestine of course, or in Yemen for that matter, especially when Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and his fat chequebook arrive in London or Washington.

The provenance of Ai Weiwei's name and reputation being launched from US and European art and human rights pedestals is a mixed blessing, however. It makes him........

© Al Jazeera