Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s Trace project, on exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden through January, highlights the plight of political activists worldwide who may otherwise have been forgotten. Portraits of 176 men and women created entirely from Legos bring life and color to the bleak existences many must endure as punishment for speaking out against discrimination, maltreatment and oppression.

In a video shown at the exhibit, Ai explains he chose “prisoners of conscience … political prisoners” whose freedom of speech had been silenced, in an effort to give them a voice once again. Freedom of speech, he said, is “essential to a civilized society.”

Ai, born in 1957 in Beijing, trained as an artist and studied and worked in New York for many years before returning to China in 1993. In 2005, he began writing a blog criticizing the Chinese government. He continued to speak out against injustices and wrongdoing in his country — famously about the 2008 earthquake that killed nearly 10,000 children when poorly constructed schools collapsed. This led to his beating by police and periods of surveillance, house arrest and detainment by the government.

In 2015, Ai was allowed to leave China and moved to Berlin.

Tickets for his appearance at the opening of Trace on June 27 were gone in minutes.

Visitors to the Trace exhibit are first greeted by a floor-to-ceiling wallpaper design called The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but Is Really an Alpaca. On a white background, the gold design weaves alpacas, security cameras and other types of surveillance equipment, handcuffs and the Twitter bird into circular patterns.


As you pass and enter the rooms with the portraits, the walls in this area exhibit a new design Ai created especially for this showing: The Plain Version of The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but Is Really an Alpaca. The design is the same as in the original version, but is only black lines on a white background. It looks so much like a coloring book you might expect to find crayons or colored pencils, but this design must remain pristine.


From a distance, the portraits — made of 1.2 million Lego pieces — are clear and easy to recognize, but as you get closer, the images become more indistinct. They were purposely pixelated to resemble surveillance-camera-quality photos.

Ai Weiwei’s Lego portraits of political dissidents.

The bright colors that make up each portrait seem somewhat incongruous compared to the bleak existences of political prisoners. However, the main colors in each activist’s portrait are comprised mostly of the colors of the flag from their country of origin.


Ai said he chose Legos to create the portraits because “[they] are simple. Anyone can use them.”

A video at the exhibit shows how the portraits are uploaded onto computers, designed and pixelated to be used as maps for the placement of the Legos. Each portrait takes roughly 10,000 bricks to create, and is made up of four 16×16 base plates. The exhibit was first shown at Alcatraz, then dismantled, boxed up and moved to Washington, D.C. Watch this video of workers unpacking the boxes and setting up the exhibit.

Reflecting on the work, Ai said, “A lot of people lost their freedom … [they are] heroes of our time.”

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 7th Street SW and Independence Avenue; Closest Metro station: L’Enfant Plaza; Hours: 10a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily; free.

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