Why did Ai Wei Wei risk public outrage by posing as the iconic drowned child on a pebbled beach?

Why did Ai Wei Wei risk public outrage by posing as the iconic drowned child on a pebbled beach?Photo Credit: Neil Hall/Reuters
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Thousands objected to the publication six months ago of photographs of the three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body lying face down on a Bodrum beach. Alan’s father had attempted to take his family across the two miles separating Turkey and the Greek island of Kos, but their over-crowded dinghy capsized mid-journey. The bodies of Alan and his brother were captured on camera after they washed ashore that September morning. The clamour against the images died down somewhat after they spurred European states to take a more lenient view of refugees coming from Iraq and Syria, but related images soon drew the ire of easily outraged liberals. Charlie Hebdo was targeted after it published satirical cartoonsciting the Kurdi tragedy.

Now, the outrage has returned again, this time aimed at the celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was photographed by India Today’s Rohit Chawla mimicking Alan’s pose. Weiwei has spent the past weeks helping refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos and preparing a new art project. Chawla and his colleague Gayatri Jayaraman travelled there to profile him as one of those honoured at the inaugural India Today Art Awards.

I met Chawla last week on the opening day of the India Art Fair in Delhi. He looked stressed, having returned from Greece just the previous evening, but seemed satisfied with the presentation of India Today’s booth at the art fair, consisting of portraits of artists the magazine had published over the years. The large Ai Weiwei image was the display’s centrepiece, and stood out thanks not just to its placement and size but also its composition. While most other pictures were conventional studio shots, the Ai Weiwei one showed the artist in an extraordinary pose within an evocative landscape.

Mimicking any martyr or victim is perilous, because the act implies one shares their fate in some fashion. It’s a huge step up from using a French flag filter on one’s Facebook profile in sympathy with the Paris terrorist attacks. Posing as Alan Kurdi has brought upon Ai Weiwei the charge of inflating his own importance at the expense of the individual who actually suffered a cruel end. Even though Ai did not choose the stance, he knew what he was doing by acceding to it, and was complicit in the belittling of Alan Kurdi, if indeed the photograph did belittle him.

Viewing the print at the India Art Fair, I didn’t consider it an insult to the dead child’s memory, partly because it opened up interpretations beyond the most immediate and narrow one by not slavishly imitating the original image. I disagree with Gayatri Jayaraman’s categorisation of it as a “reported news image” as opposed to “art”. In which “reported news image” does a photographer make an appointment with a subject halfway across the world, choose a secluded spot on a freezing, pebbled beach, and echo a recent iconic image in the subject’s pose? There was altogether too much deliberation involved in the exercise for it to be classified as simple reportage rather than art. (The two categories that are in any case separated by a very thick and blurry line.)

Haunting pose

What struck me most in my cursory initial view was that Ai’s body seemed to float just above the pebbles. There was something hauntingly unreal about the entire configuration which I didn’t have time to explore in the hurly burly of the fair. I now realise the effect was caused by an imperfect Photoshop job. Jayaraman’s link in her article to a Vine of the shoot in progress suggests Ai lay on a sheet which was then digitally eliminated. (I couldn’t confirm this because neither Jayaraman nor Chawla had consent to speak with me on the subject.) Accidents and flaws are often propitious in art, and I believe the Photoshopping imbued the picture with an unintended spectral force that raised it far above any ordinary tribute.

This is, of course, one subjective interpretation, which those disturbed by the act will doubtless reject. The question remains; why did Ai Weiwei consent to pose in that fashion despite having no idea how interesting the final product would be? I think it’s because he believes in exploring edgy subjects and ways of living that scramble conventional categories. He is a bona fide dissident, and has scars and a surgery for brain haemorrhage to prove it. He angered Chinese authorities by cataloguing names of students who died in badly constructed school buildings after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He was beaten, prevented from travelling, placed under house arrest, but continued producing provocations. Yet, he hasn’t always had such an antagonistic relationship with the Chinese government. He advised the architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron on the design of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, a commission that no enemy of the state could have received.

His provocations are often straightforward and sometimes silly. He might brandish handcuffs in a ridiculous version of Gangnam style; or vandalise ancient artefacts by destroying a Han dynasty urn and painting a Coca Cola logo on another; or give the fingerto revered sites like Tiananmen Square as part of a series titled Study of Perspective.

The Venice Biennale is among the world’s most prestigious exhibitions and at the last edition, Ai collaborated on the Iraqi pavilion. The show was inspired by Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, and the artist Isaac Julien directed a marathon reading of all three volumes of the difficult text. At the same time and in the same city, Julien displayed a new video installation commissioned and financed by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. That’s the contradictory art world Ai belongs to, and is among the most prominent members of.

He recently took time off from working with Syrian refugees to open a show of pretty kite-like sculptures in the upscale Parisian store Le Bon Marché and take Paris Hilton on a private tour of the exhibition. He’s an artist, an activist, and a canny businessman rolled into one. His activism enhances his international stature which enhances the market value of his work. In earlier eras these things would be easy to separate, but it’s unclear now where activism gives way to art, or becomes art, or stops being art, or when provocation rises to the level of interesting art, or descends to the level of a tasteless publicity stunt. Ai Weiwei constantly tests the boundaries of these divisions, and often smashes them like a marvellous old Chinese vase dropped onto a concrete floor.


TRS sweeps Hyderabad polls, decisively settling the question of whom the city belongs to

TRS sweeps Hyderabad polls, decisively settling the question of whom the city belongs to
Photo Credit: IANS
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On Friday, as results began to come in for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections held on February 2, it was clear that the Telangana Rashtra Samiti was doing much better than the opinion polls had predicted. The surveys had shown that the party would get 75-85 seats in the 150-member house. But by late evening, it had already won 98 seats and was expected to easily get a two-thirds majority.

The Telangana Rashtra Samiti victory points to crucial political realignments in Hyderabad. The party seems to have won the votes not just of its core Telangana constituency, but also of the more apolitical middle-class, the working class poor and even the openly hostile Andhra Telugus.

By late Friday, Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen had won 32 seats, the Congress had only one seat, as did the Telugu Desam Party. The Bharatiya Janata Party had won three.

To understand how a party with less than two years of experience in office exceeded expectations, it is vital to understand why the first Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation polls in an independent Telangana mattered for the Telangana Rashtra Samiti.

A key election

When Telugu-dominated Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated in 2014 to allow for the creation of Telangana, the city of Hyderbad was a major source of contention between advocates of each state. The city, with a sizeable population of Andhra Telugus, was eventually awarded to Telangana. But it was decided that Hyderabad would remain the joint capital of both states until 2024. It was vital for the TRS to get a majority in these municipal elections to settle the question about whom Hyderabad actually belongs to.

To score this victory, the TRS undercut the more established parties with their political and patronage networks. For instance, the old city with its majority Muslim population is considered to be the impregnable bastion of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. The areas on the outer periphery have a sizeable Andhra Telugu population, which tends to vote for the Telugu Desam Party, while the non-Muslim minorities, Dalits and weaker sections were traditional Congress voters.

“The party appealed to different classes of people in different ways,” said Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, who was active in the Telangana movement. “They pulled out all stops to win the final bastion.”

A changing city

To woo the working class who constitute 40%-50% of the population the TRS relied on welfare measures. One such is the promise to build low-cost two-bedroom homes. Though the fine print is yet to be released, voters were enthusiastic. The working class has been priced out of the city in the last two decades in which Hyderabad has gone from being a laid-back nawabi city to a back office for global Information Technology and consulting firms. The centre of economic gravity has shifted to the HITEC city, the gleaming IT district on the western periphery where the skilled migrants live.

Although the middle class has benefitted from the boom, their situation has also become more precarious, said Rakesh Reddy, who used to be a software engineer himself. Two decades ago, a family could live comfortably in the city on a monthly income of Rs 15,000, he said. That is impossible now, as a boom in construction and real estate has pushed up prices. The TRS has used its position as Telangana’s ruling party to assure working class voters that it will take care of their interests.

To appeal to the middle class, the TRS used a different strategy. For this they had IT and Panchayati Raj minister, K Taraka Rama Rao, who is known as KTR. He is the suave, English-speaking face of the party in contrast to his father, TRS founder and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, who is more comfortable spouting witticisms in Telugu. KTR was meant to assure a globalised middle class uncomfortable with the rhetoric about a parochial state that the party understood their concerns.

Problems aplenty

Lastly, the large Andhra population, which was the core of the anti-Telangana sentiment also voted for the TRS, because no other party is in a position to protect their interests.

However, winning a majority does not mean that Hyderabad’s urban problems will get solved. Corruption in the civic body blights the quality of works undertaken by it. “Half of the GHMC budget is misappropriated by the eco-system of corruption,” said Padmanabha Reddy, the Secretary of the Forum for Good Governance.

Besides, the delineation of powers is not clear. Water and sewerage is the remit of another agency, while electricity and transport come under different departments. The Metro, which is still under construction, has a different parent while the MMTS suburban rail system is under the control of the Railways.


When reporting on death turns to death for a reporter

When reporting on death turns to death for a reporter
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Meeting Garang was a bit of an anticlimax after our exotic encounter with the Tuposa. To start with we were placed under informal arrest in a jungle clearing that Garang’s people laughingly called the International Hotel. Then we were told we would have to wait our turn while Garang held talks with a visiting delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Every now and then some of Garang’s people in their fatigues and dark glasses would come and check us over again. One of them was especially sinister. Tall, thin and aggressive, he sneered through his dark glasses, asking, “Why should I let you meet our leader? How much money will you give me?”

As time wore on, waves of bewilderment and fear rolled over us in equal proportions. An overnight sleep did nothing to help. Quite the contrary because when we awoke we realised the makeshift pillows on which our heads had been resting were actually canvas sacks filled with grenades.

Finally, nearly twenty-eight hours after our arrival, we were ushered into Garang’s presence. A well-built man with a PhD from Iowa State University in the US, he had very little to say that was original, preferring to stick to the SPLA mantra: “We are the government of the area, anyone who contests this fact is entertaining an illusion.” He insisted that the SPLA were no separatists, merely political activists who wanted peace based on genuine dialogue with all the country’s political forces.

Before my interview the Thames crew had theirs. As previously planned Gill and Stewart had decided that their team would focus predominantly on the famine gripping south Sudan. For them it was more of a visual story and their cameras could really paint in chilling detail the human cost of the civil war. Stewart in particular went very quiet as the scale of the tragedy hit him. Clearly, the money raised the previous year from Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s Live Aid concert hadn’t helped this part of Africa—something he especially seemed to be particularly aware of. Garang’s seeming indifference to the plight of his fellow Sudanese and the belligerent comments of his close advisers upset all of us. For these particular African warlords life was all too cheap.

The following morning, after our interview with Garang who appeared to have vanished, we again teamed up with Kwol and another older guide called Majak to head back to Kenya. Ten hours after leaving Buma our convoy stopped. It was a good excuse to stretch our legs and for someone else to take their turn driving. I had been in the second car—a far from pleasant experience because of the dust and sand constantly kicked up by the lead vehicle. Stewart asked that everyone change cars because one was considerably more comfortable than the other. He’d spent the previous ten hours being rocked about in a seat that was badly welded to the floor and the bumpy dirt road had been playing havoc with his knees. Nobody objected, not least because of how withdrawn Stewart had become since the meeting with Garang.

My car started up, I was sitting in the same uncomfortable seat that Stewart had been complaining about. He was now lying with his long frame stretched out in the boot of the other Land Cruiser, sleeping.

A few minutes later there was a sound like a dull rumble or what I imagined was a mini earthquake.

I remember turning to Hutchings to ask if the Land Cruiser behind had punctured its petrol tank, someone may even have shouted, “It’s their petrol tank.” As we raced back we could see Stewart lying spread-eagled on his back with a bloodied Majak next to him. Their Land Cruiser had driven over a forgotten landmine planted months earlier by Garang’s forces and the sheer force of the resulting explosion had thrown Stewart clear through the air into a clump of trees. When we got to his fallen body on that mud track in southern Sudan, we could see there was a thin branch sticking out of his head.

Kwol simply disappeared and was never seen again, but Majak was lying half in and half out of the Land Cruiser. Both his legs were twisted in an unnatural way and there was blood trickling out from one side of his mouth, but he was nevertheless in a better condition than Stewart who was moaning but still sufficiently conscious to help me unbutton his shorts to help him breathe more easily.

There were also tricklets of blood dripping from his forehead, so we ripped off our own shirts to make a turban of makeshift bandages, while Gill raced off to find the nearest habitation, a government-held town called Kapoeta, where, despite heroic attempts, he tried and failed to find a doctor. He did make contact with the local SPLA commander who sent him back to us with a temporary military escort. We had absolutely no idea what would become of us. In that gathering gloom, surrounded by African scrub, nothing was clear or certain. That sense of desolation has been pushed so deep into my subconscious that it is almost impossible to recall.

What I do remember is that while Gill was away Hutchings, Heasman, Killlian and I tried to do what we could to make Stewart comfortable. As he lurched between different states of consciousness, we held his hand, talked to him and he in turn talked back at us, at least for a while. I wished at the time that we’d been able to lay him out more comfortably on a bed or a mattress. No such luxury was available. All we had was the hard, sandy ground.

I’d come close to death before a few years earlier in Afghanistan when fellow passengers on a bus travelling from Kabul to Kandahar were killed one by one by the mujahidin in front of my eyes. But, however horrible that experience, my murdered fellow bus passengers were anonymous casualties who spoke a language –Pushtu – that I didn’t understand.

The crisis involving Stewart and Majak was completely different. Both men were part of a much smaller, more closely knit group that had travelled together in convoy from Garang’s headquarters in Buma. Stewart for his part had taken the trouble to introduce himself to each one of us. By the time we got to Buma he and I had told each other everything there was to know about our schools, colleges and families. He was someone I had got to know and like. We had shared jokes and stories about our lives, played silly games to while away the time.

Unlike me, Stewart was still a bachelor. There may have been references to a girlfriend in the distant past, but what he talked about most were his parents and in particular his sister to whom he was especially close.

At the time the idea of stories or pictures did not even enter our thoughts. All our thoughts were with Stewart and Majak who to our untrained eyes, although wounded, was in no danger of losing his life. My fear for Stewart was mixed with anger about the landmine. How come Garang’s forces had left it there? It must have been Garang because his forces had been in control of the area for the past few years. Why didn’t Majak, the Garang guide designated to help us, know about the location of the mine? Had we been set up by Garang’s aides – one of them had demanded money with menaces – and were there other randomly scattered mines that would take all our lives?

There were no obvious answers and the questions seemed irrelevant because by the time Gill returned from his futile search for help, Stewart’s breathing had stopped. He was dead at the age of thirty-five and there was nothing we could do about it. The sheer sense of helplessness has never gone away. His last words were, “I don’t want to go there, I must survive.” One of us closed his eyes, I don’t remember who, as we knelt next to him, crying like little children. By my watch it was 7.30 pm Kenyan standard time.

Soon afterwards a platoon of Garang’s SPLA soldiers walked past. They must have been watching us before they suddenly loomed out of the dusk because they were not hostile. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Gibson, one of twenty seemingly barefoot soldiers, asked if there was anything he could do. We asked what medicine he could lay his hands on. All he had was a useless pack of paracetemol tablets. No good for wounded or dying victims of a mine blast.

But Gibson was practical in other ways, helping us brew a mix of coffee and whisky that each of us drank. Then we prepared for the long drive back to Lokichokio. There were difficult decisions to make.

Stewart’s body wrapped in a sleeping bag took up a huge amount of space in the one surviving Land Cruiser that had to stop several times because of two punctures and a leaking radiator. It could not accommodate all of us, as well as Majak, so our wounded SPLA guide was left behind. When we finally reached Lokichokio, shivering from a mix of shock and hysteria, news of our accident had travelled ahead of us.

Helen Fielding met us at the border crossing, together with locally based representatives of the International Red Cross. To his eternal credit, a young Swiss delegate from the ICRC took charge of a medical team that drove back into Sudan to tend to Majak. They returned with him to Kenya where he was treated in their field hospital and made a full recovery.

As for the rest of us, we were put on an ICRC charter aircraft that flew us with Stewart’s body back to Nairobi where the next twenty-four hours are still just a remembered blur of hot baths, whisky and sleep. Local contacts said Kenyan police wanted to interview us, and there was some possibility of actually spending time in a Kenyan prison cell. But before the police could get to us British diplomats had us out on the first available commercial flight to London.

My wife, Amanda, met me at Heathrow airport and drove me straight to the office where I spent the next several hours writing up the story of our tragedy. Looking back, the writing up of the story and wringing out the details on the keyboard of my typewriter was a cathartic experience. No psychiatrist could have suggested a better, although temporary way of coping with the aftermath of the tragedy.


‘Recycling is for drunks, addicts and babushkas’ – inside Russia’s mafia-dominated waste industry

‘Recycling is for drunks, addicts and babushkas’ – inside Russia’s mafia-dominated waste industry
Photo Credit: pixabay
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Most Europeans take pride in recycling. A good citizen separates glass from plastics, biowaste from metal cans and brags about it to their friends. Recycling helps soothe some of the anxiety driven by endless consumption.

However in Russia, recycling comes with a sense of shame. This is reflected by the fact that more than 80% of Russian domestic waste ends up in landfill, and most of the rest is incinerated. For comparison, Europe’s best recyclers – Austria and Germany – reuse well over 60% of their municipal waste while the UK manages 39%. A 2012 report by the International Financial Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, found that Russia’s waste recovery rate was “nearly zero”.

I first became aware of negative social attitudes to recycling in Russia during research in Samara (formerly Kuybyshev), the country’s sixth largest city and which lies in a twist of the river Volga 1,000km from Moscow. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union it was a closed city hosting aviation and automobile industries. Along with a team of Russian and Finnish researchers, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the local culture and learn about the potential for developing eco-innovations in an economy undergoing rapid transition. The results of which were published late last year.

We focused on how people dealt with their waste. At first the task didn’t seem too gratifying as the people whose lives we followed told us they threw all their waste in the bin and that there was neither waste separation nor recycling.

Russia’s informal recycling sector. Minna Halme, Author provided
Russia’s informal recycling sector. Minna Halme, Author provided

But as we observed their daily lives, we noticed some people leaving beer bottles under the staircases of their apartment building. We also saw bottle collection points outdoors under trees or in shabby basement premises. The outdoor collection points were tended by women who told us their salary was some 200-300 roubles (about £2) a day, but they refused to tell who collected the bottles and paid their salary. We were usually thrown out of the basement recycling places as soon as it turned out we wanted information.

When we asked people whether they ever took bottles to these recycling points, most regarded the question as ridiculous. The question made a lot of sense to us as the families we asked were from the low-income tiers of society and could certainly have used the extra money. Probing the issue further we were told that “only alcoholics, drug addicts or poor babushkas [elderly women] who clean corridors” take bottles to recycling points.

In addition to the bottles, we also saw used cardboard neatly packed as if it was going somewhere. But nobody seemed to know who it belonged to and where it was heading for. Once, when taking a photo of one such cardboard pile, a bulky man came shouting loudly and chased us away.

The ‘menu’ in a recycling basement. A bottle of Baltika will earn you a rouble (about £0.01p). Minna Halme, Author provided
The ‘menu’ in a recycling basement. A bottle of Baltika will earn you a rouble (about £0.01p). Minna Halme, Author provided

It’s not easy to get access to companies in Russia, but we were lucky to find one waste management firm willing to talk to us. One morning we met the CEO in his office. After some champanskoye (sparkling wine) and chocolate he took us to visit his company’s landfill site. The company focused primarily on landfill, he told us, because to get involved in recycling or reused items was too risky a business; and waste fragments of any value, such as bottles and metals, were already in the hands of the mafia.

Recycling goes overground

Integrating this informal, underground recycling with official efforts to deal with waste is tough.

To give one example, we recently worked with Baltika brewery in St Petersburg, which wanted to start bottle collections because of the environmental policy of its parent company, Carlsberg Group. As part of an intensive course on corporate sustainability, an enthusiastic group of international and Russian students were asked to design bottle collection and recycling methods that would encourage Russians to recycle. Baltika wanted to set up an independent, stand-alone system.

Knowing about the informal bottled recycling, which seemed to be as well-organised in St Petersburg as it was in Samara, I suggested a collaboration with independent recyclers, given there was a system already up and running. The question was met with a cold response: such informal bottle collectors were regarded as criminals.

In Russia, informal recycling identifies you as some kind of undesirable. It is a heavily stigmatised activity and ordinary Russians make an effort not be seen doing it. People also view many recycling companies as either having links to organised crime, or risking conflict with such groups. So at both an individual level and more organised corporate level there are major barriers to setting up the types of systems taken for granted in other parts of Europe. And despite the best efforts of citizens and companies, don’t expect to hear about major advances in systematic large-scale recycling in Russia any time soon.