arts

Ai Weiwei's face masks raise over $1.4M for charity

Updated 15th July 2020
Ai Weiwei's face masks raise over $1.4M for charity
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
This article has been updated with details on how much money the project has raised for charities.
Ai Weiwei has raised over $1.4 million for charity by selling face masks printed with some of his most iconic artworks.
Since announcing the project in May, the Chinese artist's studio has sold over 22,000 masks to people in over 40 countries, according to an update posted to the Instagram on Tuesday. The proceeds will be used to help vulnerable people impacted by Covid-19, the artist said.
Three designs were made available at $50 each, including works titled "Mask with Middle Finger" and "Sunflower Seeds," a reference to the installation that saw Ai fill London's Tate Modern with over 100 million porcelain seeds.
Many of the other designs, which could only be bought in larger sets of four or 20, allude to state control and freedom of expression, issues the dissident artist has long addressed in his work. Among them were images of handcuffs, a surveillance camera and a crab, a reference to a Chinese slang term for censorship.
The face masks were printed by hand at Ai Weiwei's Berlin studio.
The face masks were printed by hand at Ai Weiwei's Berlin studio. Credit: Ai Weiwei Studio
Produced in collaboration with Guggenheim Museum curator Alexandra Munroe -- and printed by hand at Ai's studio in Berlin -- the items were made available via eBay.
The cloth masks are not for medical use, nor are they even meant to be worn. Instead, the artworks are intended to raise money for vulnerable groups, including the migrants and refugees whose plight has featured heavily in Ai's art and activism in recent years. The money raised will go to emergency Covid-19 responses organized by Human Rights Watch, Refugees International and Médecins Sans Frontières.
For Ai, the threat to vulnerable people's livelihoods "requires each individual to act, both alone and collectively."
Many designs allude to state control and freedom of expression.
Many designs allude to state control and freedom of expression. Credit: Ai Weiwei Studio
"Our small individual acts become powerful when they are part of the social response," he said in a media statement, as he revealed the project in May. "An individual wearing a mask makes a gesture; a society wearing masks combats a deadly virus. And a society that wears masks because of the choices of individuals, rather than because of the directive of authorities, can defy and withstand any force.
"No will is too small, and no act is too helpless," he added.
In a press release at the time, Human Rights Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth described the project as "a powerful example of art and activism coming together for good," while Refugees International president Eric Schwartz called it a "noble initiative" that "sounds the alarm" on the threat the pandemic poses to displaced people. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has previously that urban refugees in Africa are among those struggling to meet basic needs due to the economic impact of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns.
The print "Mask with Middle Finger" is a symbol of affirmation and self-empowerment in the artist's work.
The print "Mask with Middle Finger" is a symbol of affirmation and self-empowerment in the artist's work. Credit: Ai Weiwei Studio

Speaking out

Ai has also been outspoken about the pandemic's political implications -- especially in China, where he was frequently subjected to police harassment and detention before entering self-exile in Germany in 2015.
He has since moved to Cambridge, UK. In an interview with CNN Style in April, he expressed concern that the country's government is using its response to the virus to strengthen what he calls its "police state."
"For China, everything is for political use," Ai said, adding: "It doesn't matter what kind of disaster they're facing. The only thing they learn is how well they use this authoritarian power to manipulate the story."
The masks were printed by hand at Ai's studio in Berlin.
The masks were printed by hand at Ai's studio in Berlin. Credit: Ai Weiwei Studio
The artist also revealed that he is producing a documentary about the pandemic, and has been working remotely with film crews in Wuhan, where the outbreak first emerged.
Ai is not the only artist to turn his hand to mask-making. Takashi Murakami, who is known for his work with the likes of Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, released a series of face coverings featuring his signature flower motif, among other designs.
In the UK, a group of four renowned artists -- David Shrigley, Yinka Shonibare, Eddie Peake and Linder Sterling -- also unveiled a series of limited edition masks in May. Money raised by their designs will go to the Contemporary Art Society's Rapid Response Fund, which offers financial support to artists and museums affected by coronavirus lockdowns.