eBay has recently put on sale an assortment of limited-edition artistic face masks by Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese artist and activist who’s making his art available to raise fundings for a number of COVID-19 relief organizations.
The idea of creating face masks came to Weiwei while making some linocut carvings with his son Ai Lao one night. He printed a wood carving onto a cloth, posted a photo on his Instagram account and when this went viral he decided to produce 10,000 pieces for charity. In doing so, he teamed up with Alexandra Munroe from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, who curated the project, and eBay for Charity, the giving platform of e-commerce giant eBay.
Weiwei’s face masks are made of non-surgical cloth and have been silk-screened by hand in his art studio in Berlin. They are decorated with some of the artist’s most famous designs, from the rebellious middle finger used in his Study of Perspective series to the sunflower seeds already seen in his artistic installation at London’s Tate Modern in 2010. They include also politically-inspired images, such as a surveillance camera and a pair of handcuffs, as well as creatures that recall ancient Chinese mythology – all emblems of his relentless campaign to protect human rights and freedom of speech.
A prominent figure in contemporary art worldwide, Ai Weiwei is indeed well known for his critical voice and deep social commitment. I’m sure we all remember his many artistic acts of dissent against the Chinese government over the years, such as Remembering (Munich, 2009), an art installation to commemorate the thousands of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, or S.A.C.R.E.D. (Venice Bienniale, 2013), the artwork that recounts his days in a Chinese prison. Following the COVID-19 outburst, which, in his own words, “requires each individual to act, both alone and collectively”, he wrote a piece on China’s response to the pandemic for Art Newspaper. He also started to post screenshots of his FaceTime calls on Instagram to capture the video calling ritual that became the new normal for many of us during the lockdown.
Speaking of lockdown, I personally think that if this global pandemic has taught us anything, it is the power of human solidarity and creativity. From the camaraderie of balcony singing to the resourcefulness of entrepreneurs who turned their businesses upside down to help their communities, scenes of support and resilience popped up everywhere. And now, the fact that an artist like Ai Weiwei is turning some of his most iconic artworks into face masks not only conveys a strong message, but also helps bring art closer to people. Just consider that a single mask costs only $50 – surely a very small fraction of the usual price you’d have to pay to get one of his works!