Many an eyebrow was raised last week when the leader of the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party shared a selfie in which she poses with artist Ai Weiwei. Politician Alice Weidel originally posted the photograph on her Twitter account with the caption,” #AiWeiwei is in the capital!!!! I almost didn’t dare ask him for a selfie ;-).” In the image, the artist sidles up close on her right and grins for the camera.
Ai is known to oblige people’s requests for selfies with him, but this documented encounter raised a few questions. Namely, some wondered, did the Chinese dissident know who his companion was? Weidel is an openly lesbian, former investment banker who opposes same-sex marriage and once referred to immigrants in Germany as “illiterate people” who “don’t have any training.” Her party, founded in 2013, is known for its anti-Islam and anti-immigration positions. Ai, on the other hand, grew up a refugee in his own country; remains an exile in Berlin; and has spent the last three years making art to raise awareness about global refugee crisis — tasteless as his efforts might be at times.
Speaking with Frieze, the artist said he had not known Weidel was an AfD politician until she told him so. Weidel had approached him at a restaurant in Berlin, he said, and clarified that AfD was “the right-wing party,” after which he agreed to pose with her. In his statement, the artist also defended his decision.
“I don’t believe that differences in political views or values between people should act as a barrier in communication,” the artist said. “My efforts are in tearing down those boundaries. Alice Weidel is a democratically elected politician and has the right to freely express her political views. Although her views are completely the opposite of mine, no one has the right to judge her personal life.
“At the same time, no one has the right to judge who I choose to take a photograph with,” he added. “If you cannot tolerate free expression, your political views are even more terrifying.”
Free expression, it happens, is something that a number of AfD officials have struggled to tolerate. Last summer, Kassel city councilman Thomas Mater denounced an obelisk by Olu Oguibe, created for Documenta 14, as “degenerate art,” and threatened to organize protests should his city acquire the work. Inscribed with the phrase, “I was a stranger and you took me in,” in four languages, it is titled, “Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge,” or “Monument for Strangers and Refugees.”
And since December, senior member of AfD Björn Höcke has had his tolerance for art tested, right outside his house. There, artists have erected a mini replica of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which Höcke described as a “monument of shame,” and plan to keep it there for at least two years. The politician argued that the installation encroached upon his right to privacy; however, a district court ruled last month that the artists’s freedom of expression trumped his claim.