Voices of Freedom: Reflections on Ai Weiwei and free expression

Thursday, October 3, 2013

By Jesse Mintz

Last night I found myself shoulder to shoulder with 350 other freedom of expression enthusiasts for Canadian Journalists For Free Expression’s Ai Weiwei: Voices of Freedom at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was a truly unique event. Part art exhibition, part salon, it was a night of music and theatre, poetry and lecture, all in tribute to renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. If you couldn't make it out to the event, check out the live blog and the Stand with Ai Weiwei photo gallery.

Hosted by the CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti, the event featured visual artists, musicians, authors, and actors – all activists in their own right – sharing the stage to shed some light on the state of free expression.

Not all of the insight came from the stage, however. As the audience listened with rapt attention to the performances, I snaked my way around the room talking with the people who had come out in support of Ai Weiwei and freedom of expression.

Early in the evening I fell into a conversation with a woman about what lessons Ai Weiwei’s experiences in China can hold for us in Canada. We spoke for several minutes, but when I asked if I could quote her in a post-event follow up, she declined out of shyness.

At the end of the night however, she tracked me down – she had changed her mind. “Ai Weiwei put his name to his words,” she told me. “He put his name to his expression and to his art. Art is meant to inspire others. If I’m not willing to put my name down, what lesson can I say I’ve learned from Ai’s courage? He’d be the fist person to put his name down. My name is Beth Anne Ellipsis.”

She was right. A large part of the performers’ focus was on the courage to overcome the fear that comes with speaking out.

“Did they ask you to eat your words Ai Weiwei? Did they remind you of the circumstances? Did you remind them that you would not?” spoken word poet Truth Is... asked from the stage.

Here are a few reflections from the audience on what Ai Weiwei’s work means to them and to freedom of expression in Canada:

“The base lesson we can learn is one of inspiration: he is willing to put his life on the line while we aren’t even aware that our basic democratic freedoms and rights are being taken away from us on a daily basis.” – Dianne Rinehart

“Don’t be afraid and don’t let others change you. If you feel the truth in your heart, speak it out.” – Sylvia Grady

“The lesson we all have to learn is that modes of expression are changing so fast, the future is unpredictable. Who knows how long newspapers and magazines will be around. There are fewer and fewer messengers and that makes the message more easily controlled, more easily managed. What happens to our knowledge and our breadth of insight when this happens? If art can be another mode of political expression, like in [Ai Weiwei’s] work, so much the better.” – Franklyn Cappell

“Speak your own truth, even in the face of adversity. That’s the lesson for Canadians. If you don’t, it only serves to limit you.” – Shari Ladds

“The dynamic personality and incredible courage it takes for Ai to make his art is the lesson. You have to respect what he stands for as a person and what his art says.” – Bluebell Plack

“There is no such thing as total free expression anywhere, not even here in Canada. That’s what he teaches us. He is a warning, a call to awareness, to protect what we have and fight for it.” – Charles Kay

“You realize how precious freedom of expression is when you hear stories like this. How precious – and how dangerous.” – Sharon Wong

“We all have the power to express ourselves and no one can take that away from us no matter how hard they try. That’s what Ai Weiwei teaches us.” – Melissa Ladds

When not exploring Canada on his bicycle, Jesse Mintz is a reader and writer of all things political.