By Aisha Sharipzhan

Spread on the curved wall of the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. is Ai WeiWei’s The Animal that looks like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca, a new work by the artist that features imagery of Twitter birds, chains, handcuffs, surveillance cameras and alpacas.

The alpaca featured on the wallpaper has a hidden meaning – it became a symbol for free speech in China in 2009. The animal is a representation of a mythical creature called the “grass-mud horse,” which sounds like “F—your mother” when read with a different tonal inflection. This became a way to get around Chinese internet censors, according to the exhibit.

What seemingly appears as a decorative wallpaper with golden motifs, is actually a representation of the Chinese artist’s interest in internet censorship, government surveillance and activism through social media. The Hirshhorn is the first location to display the wallpaper.

This intricately detailed wallpaper leads into Ai WeiWei’s exhibition Trace, created in 2014 during the time Ai was prohibited from leaving China after being detained.

Laid out in six installments on the floor, Trace was assembled by hand using 1.2 million LEGO bricks. The LEGO creations feature the portraits of 176 activists from around the world. Like Ai, these activists have been detained, exiled or threatened.

Some familiar faces such as Edward Snowden, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Chelsea Manning and Martin Luther King, Jr. are represented in colorfully pixelated LEGO portraits. The images are pixelated to possibly resemble surveillance footage.

In each room is a computer display, featuring all the names of the activists. Visitors can select each name to learn more about the individual and why they are included in the exhibit.

The portraits may stir controversy, as some blur the line between being a traitor to their nation and being a hero. Snowden, for example, continues to be a topic of debate in the United States as some believe he betrayed the country for leaking classified information, while others believe he did the right thing to hold the government accountable.

Placing Snowden’s portrait among activists from other countries may put his situation into perspective. Had he been a Russian whistleblower instead, for example, who exposed the Russian government’s activities, would Americans still call him a traitor? Trace forces viewers to confront their idea of freedom from their own safe little bubble.

The exhibition represents not only the names familiar to Western society, but also names from Eastern and Central Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa, bringing to light the political and social instability in other parts of the world to an American audience.

Ai WeiWei’s work is provocative and challenges authority, bringing activism to art. Since the late 1970s, the Chinese artist has sought to bring change through his artwork, increasingly focusing on freedom of expression over the years.

Ai WeiWei’s Trace will be displayed at the Hirshhorn until Jan. 1, 2018. Admission to the museum is free.

Featured Photo Credit: An installation at Ai WeiWei’s exhibit at the Hirshhorn (Aisha Sharipzhan/Bloc Reporter).

Aisha Sharipzhan is a senior journalism major and can be reached at

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