A View from Alcatraz: For Ahmed Douma

By Annie BuckleyJune 2, 2015

A View from Alcatraz: For Ahmed Douma

Any artist who isn’t an activist is a dead artist.

— Ai Weiwei

In the past four decades, following a half century of stability, the portion of the U.S. population in prison or jail has more than quadrupled. This expansion began immediately after the civil rights movement in response to a “law and order” movement and was further propelled by the nation’s failed war on drugs. It is system marred by vast racial disparities — one that unfairly punishes communities of color, burdens taxpayers and exacts a tremendous social cost.

Southern Poverty Law Center

For Ahmed Douma

WHAT WE NOW KNOW as Alcatraz, a former prison, was part of a selection of lands set aside by President Millard Fillmore in 1850 for public use. The island was assigned to the military in 1859 and, in 1863, housed its first prisoners. In 1933, the prison became the nation’s first maximum-security civilian prison, or super-max, housing inmates deemed too troublesome or difficult to be imprisoned elsewhere and setting a standard of harsh conditions that continues in US prisons today. Alcatraz remained a prison until 1963 when high cost and aging infrastructure caused Attorney General Robert Kennedy to close its doors. From 1969–1971, the island was the site of a Native American occupation led by Mohawk activist Richard Oakes and members of the collective “Indians of all Tribes.” This protest of unfair treatment and land usurpation was the longest Native American occupation in US history and is celebrated on the island each year on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. It is particularly powerful in light of the fact that, in 1895, 19 members of the Hopi tribe were imprisoned on the very same island for resisting laws that went against their culture, including forced education of their children. In 1973, Alcatraz opened as a national park. Since that time, the formerly notorious prison has been a popular tourist destination, a fitting irony in the nation that imprisons more people than any other in the world. One of the country’s most popular parks, it hosts 1.4 million visitors per year; rain or shine, people from all over the world wait in long lines for a ferry to take them the short distance across the San Francisco Bay to the island.

Since September 2014, Alcatraz has been home to an exciting new exhibition by renowned contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, sponsored by the FOR-SITE Foundation. Despite the press and accolades that @large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz has received, most visitors are still surprised to encounter the exhibition, the first major contemporary art exhibition on the island. Disembarking from the boat, visitors are greeted by a guide that offers an introduction to Alcatraz, and on the day I visit, he asks for a show of hands of how many know about the art exhibition. Mine was one of a spattering of four or five hands in a crowd of approximately 50 people. Redefining site as psychosocial space more than a physical location, @large draws not only on the island’s history as a penitentiary and site of social protest but also brings a deep awareness and ingenious attention to its current position as a tourist attraction.

Like much of Ai’s work, @large bridges art and activism with a healthy dose of public education and cultural awareness. It successfully engenders in viewers — whether from the art world or not — a heightened and haunting knowledge of political prisoners around the world, specifically introducing them to 176 of the vast numbers of people imprisoned, and often tortured, for expressing their views. Seducing viewers into a deep consideration of human rights and freedom with engaging and relatable visuals, @large proceeds gradually and skillfully and culminates in a call to action, however small, that is heeded by most.

A few weeks after I visited the exhibition in February, I had the opportunity to bring a presentation of images from the project through Community-based Art — a program I began and facilitate with California State University, San Bernardino (where I am on the Art faculty) — to the California Institution for Men (CIM), the state prison located in and also commonly referred to as Chino. The impact of showing images of contemporary art about incarceration by an artist on the other side of the world to inmates (some of them artists, too) was only deepened by the fact that the artist himself was a prisoner, albeit political, detained for 81 days in 2011 by the Chinese government and, to this day, unable to leave China. Ai uses Twitter and other forms of social media almost incessantly to get his messages out. But cut off from the Internet — Facebook, Instagram, and 24-hour news cycles — the men in Chino so intently watching my presentation had no knowledge of Ai Weiwei. I relayed a story from a book accompanying the exhibition, in which Cheryl Haines, founding executive director of the FOR-SITE Foundation, recounted her trip to Beijing to visit Ai after his release from detention. “I asked the artist what small thing I could do to assist him after this experience. He said that he hoped I could bring his ideas and art to a broader audience.” It was at this moment that she decided to ask him to make work for Alcatraz. An artist in the audience, all clad in the same prison-issue blue, raised his hand and said, with calm solidarity, “I really get it. This guy’s just like us. He just wants to get his work out there.”

ai weiwei alcatraz

Photo (c) Glen Bowman

The genius of this exhibition lies in its ability to connect with so many people, from tourists to schoolchildren, artists and curators, and even people in prison. Through everyday materials, relatable visuals, accessible and thought-provoking literature, and engaging sound and sensory experiences, Ai ensures that each one, near or far, will have access to the complex but deeply relevant issues and questions inherent in his project. He starts with a generally appealing aesthetic — colorful birds and flowers and flight and its restriction are common motifs — and, structurally, leads viewers from the informational to the metaphorical to the reflective and experiential. Additionally, the exhibition includes an army of red-shirted art guides, posted throughout. Reminiscent of the armed guards that once walked these corridors, the art guides are an effervescent reinvention of the idea of a sentinel, ready to engage in conversation about the art — how it was made, what it means — with anyone that asks. This shift from guard to guide echoes the transformation that has occurred on Alcatraz and, more subtly, reminds viewers that change is not yet complete. The United States prison system, of which Alcatraz was once a part, is notable not only for its record high rates of incarceration but, more disturbingly, for its vastly disproportionate levels of imprisonment for blacks, Latinos, victims of abuse, and people in poverty. (One striking statistic among many gathered and reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center is that blacks are imprisoned in the United States at six times the rate of whites. The incarceration rate for blacks is about 1,300 per 100,000; this figure is 25 times higher for black men under 30 that drop out of high school — an all-too-common situation for young people in poverty. A powerful graph from the Prison Policy Initiative takes brings the data home with a visual. According the Correctional Association of New York, a staggering 82 percent of all women in prison are survivors of child abuse and three quarters also experienced domestic violence.)

Most visitors begin in the New Industries Building, the cavernous former workroom at the bottom of Alcatraz’s craggy hill. Here, guests planning to peer into dilapidated cells or enjoy views of San Francisco Bay from winding stone walkways are instead greeted by a large colorful dragon. Part of With Wind, an installation of kites designed by Ai and handmade by artisans in China, the glorious dragon stretches sinuously across the ceiling of the cement bunker like a playful reverie come to life. In the room where prisoners once labored, watched continuously by guards with guns, these bright and beautiful kites are tethered to the ceiling. The imagery on the kites is derived from the national birds and flowers of countries with histories of human rights abuses. Quotations about freedom by human rights advocates from Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela to Edward Snowden and Ai himself are nestled amongst the pretty leaves and wings.

In the next room lies Trace, a vast sea of brightly colored Legos depicting the faces of 176 international political prisoners. The Lego portraits that make up Trace are visually arresting and entice viewers to learn more about each subject. Alongside the pictures, viewers can peruse thick white notebooks placed on pedestals, and read short narratives about each of the prisoners. I read several — all were compelling — but this one stood out to me:

Egypt: Ahmed Douma
Convicted of participation in illegal protests. Douma is a prominent activist and blogger who has famously been arrested under each consecutive Egyptian government in recent years. He was arrested following a protest organized by the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign in defiance of a new restrictive protest law. In 2013 he was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor.

I connected to this fellow writer and remembered watching news reports of the powerful Egyptian protests not long ago. Throughout the exhibition, Douma remained at the edge of my consciousness like a new acquaintance stuck in a perilous place.

From the workroom, viewers are guided up the hill to former cells housing the sound installation, Stay Tuned, in which a recording of a song, poem, or speech created while in prison leaks through the walls of each tiny cell. Striving — against art world trends — to make meaning as explicit as possible, the words are posted on the wall across from each cell. Standouts for me were the song “What a System (What a Crime)” by the Robben Island Singers, of the notorious South African prison where Nelson Mandela was also held and was part of the group that found solace in song despite the torture and debilitating conditions they experienced in prison during the long fight against Apartheid, and the beautiful “Study for String Orchestra (Terezin 1943)” by the Czech composer Pavel Haas, one of eight compositions written while he was in concentration camps before he was killed in Auschwitz. There was an audible gasp in my audience at CIM when I showed images of Stay Tuned. “Those cells are tiny!” they told me, some with a new view of their situation and awareness that prisoners had endured much worse.

As much as Stay Tuned resonated for me, my audience at CIM favored Blossom. Housed in the former prison hospital, this installation is made up of meticulously crafted white porcelain flowers blooming from decaying sinks, toilets, and bathtubs. Seeing it, one of the inmates shared, “This reminds me of when I first got here some 20 years ago and a friend said to me, ‘bloom where you’re planted.’” After the presentation, another man quietly thanked me for bringing this project to them, saying, “I will go back to my cell after this and I will think about it differently. I will imagine all the ways that I can work to make it a better place while I am here.”

Before heading back downhill, visitors have the chance to participate in Yours Truly by writing a postcard to one of the prisoners featured in the earlier Lego portraits. Rows of neatly stacked postcards, each with the national bird or flower of the prisoner’s country, are pre-addressed to the men and women included in Trace. Next to this are wooden benches and tables to sit and write. The notebooks with the prisoners’ stories are placed out for viewers to read. On the day I visit, people fill the wooden benches and pour through the notebooks, considering what to say that might resonate or inspire. I linger for a while and then choose a postcard at random. I turn it over only to find that it is pre-addressed to Ahmed Douma. Before I leave, I sit down to write to Ahmed. It’s harder than I thought it would be. What can I possibly say that might help him in even a remote way? I do my best and deposit the card in one of the wooden bins for mailing, then head back down the hill.

Before returning to the dock, viewers might stop at the gift shop or pause in a small room near the makeshift theater to watch a film about the history of the island that began as a natural bird sanctuary. They will learn, for example, that 34 men attempted to escape. (None were successful). Also, prisoners housed here include conscientious objectors during World War I as well as gangsters of 1930s and ’40s fame, such as Al Capone. Nearby, in a small room, two films by Ai Weiwei are playing. I noted that this was absolutely the least crowded and quietest part of the exhibition. In fact, I was the only one in the room for the time that I stayed and watched the films. If an ingenious use of materials is the brain of this exhibition, one of the films, So Sorry (2011), functions as its heart. In it, the artist and a small team of filmmakers seek out and confront the police officer that arrested him. In a scene stunning for bravery etched by a thin veneer of panic, Ai shouts at the man.

At a less intense but similarly elucidating point in So Sorry, Ai is asked in an interview whether viewers need to know anything about Chinese contemporary art, or aesthetics, or contemporary art theory to understand his work. The artist leans into the microphone and says simply, maybe a little gruffly, “No.” This stance, together with Haines’s foresight to invite Ai to make work for Alcatraz, fuels the exhibition’s uncanny relationship to site, conceptually, spatially, emotionally, and socially, despite that the artist was never physically there. That the exhibition is visually evocative, emotionally charged, and clearly explanatory throughout is a perfect match with the wide popularity of the site and diverse background knowledge of its viewers. Part of this project is education and, like any good teacher, Ai alternately invites and cajoles, challenges and intrigues. He draws viewers in through engaging interests (kites! Legos! portraits!), and then slowly builds on that connection, adding information to expand thinking and opportunities for reflection. By the time there is a space to participate directly, becoming part of the circle that connects tourists on the island with prisoners across the sea, visitors have considered, and maybe changed, their own relationship to human rights.

At the end of my presentation, the men in Chino asked if they could write postcards, too. One commented wistfully that, “We all did something wrong to get in here but these people were just expressing their views,” demonstrating a level of empathy that the average citizen might be surprised to hear from a man in prison. I told them that I didn’t know because the postcards were at Alcatraz, but I asked what they would say if they could write on them. One reply summed up the majority opinion, “I would tell them to have hope — and to know that someone out there cares.”


Annie Buckley is an artist, writer, curator, and educator based in Los Angeles with an emphasis on art and social justice.

LARB Contributor

Annie Buckley is an artist, writer, and editor at large for LARB. She is the founding director of the Institute for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Justice at San Diego State University, where she is a professor of visual studies and the founder and principal investigator of Prison Arts Collective, a statewide program in California since 2013, and VISTA (Valuing Incarcerated Scholars Through Academia). Buckley is the editor of Higher Education and the Carceral State: Transforming Together (Routledge, 2024) and the author and illustrator of Kids’ Yoga Deck (Chronicle Books, 2003). Her writing about contemporary art and culture is widely published, including in Artforum and The Huffington Post.


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