In the new documentary feature Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, San Francisco curator and gallerist Cheryl Haines harnesses the power of a postcard to inspire a new generation of human rights activists.
Gallerist and curator Cheryl Haines
Midway into creating his @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibition, Ai shared a personal story with his collaborator and friend Cheryl Haines. The artist and dissident grew up in the hinterlands of China, where his father, poet Ai Qing, had been politically exiled. “One day, his father received a postcard from an admirer, saying, ‘Do not despair. Your work is very important, and you have not been forgotten,’” recounts Haines. The simple gesture profoundly impacted the whole family and, decades later, resonated with Haines. “It made me realize how important it is to reach out to others,” she says, “particularly people who are incarcerated for their beliefs, and let them know that they are not alone.” Now, with her new documentary feature, Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly, Haines draws on the power of that postcard to call a new generation to action.
An Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly postcard addressed to Saudi Arabian citizen, British resident and prisoner of conscience Shaker Aamer.
As principal of the Haines Gallery and founding executive director of the nonprofit FOR-SITE Foundation, Haines has spent three decades exploring the idea of “art about place,” with a formidable roster of artists that, in addition to Ai, includes Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. To pull off the large-scale, site-specific installations for which she and FOR-SITE are known, Haines often pushes into unfamiliar territory. For example, she worked with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to mount the aforementioned @Large exhibition at Alcatraz in 2014-15—the former prison’s first turn at hosting a large-scale art exhibition. Although Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly is her first documentary feature, Haines found herself on familiar footing. “In some ways, [filmmaking] is very similar to curating a contemporary art exhibition because it’s about conceptual matchmaking, connecting the dots, trying to put yourself in the viewer’s perspective, what’s important, how to communicate to a broad audience,” she says. “It’s not so dissimilar to working in a national park, honestly.”
The foundation of Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly is an eponymous installation at @Large, one of seven original works that focused on human rights and freedom of expression. (Notably, Ai had to direct the exhibition from Beijing; he was prohibited from leaving China.) With help from Amnesty International, the project invited visitors to send postcards to some of the prisoners of conscience featured in Trace, Ai’s series of portraits composed entirely of Legos. Over the show’s seven-month run, more than 90,000 postcards were sent to 116 detainees in 21 countries—and, remarkably, some responded. In her documentary, Haines builds on that story, interviewing several postcard recipients and their families, including former CIA officer John Kiriakou; Ahmed Maher, co-founder of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement; and the wife and children of Bahraini political activist Ibrahim Sharif Al-Sayed. Haines also interviews Ai’s mother, Gao Yang, and brother, Ai Dan, who provide insight into Ai’s formative years. In what Haines describes as one of the film’s most moving moments, postcard writers describe the sense of empowerment they gained through the simple act of reaching out to alleviate a fellow human being’s suffering.
Ai Weiwei’s Trace, (2014, installation, Lego plastic bricks), part of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, Alcatraz Island, 2014-15
Haines spent a cumulative 18 months working on Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly with a trusted team of producers and editors—all with Ai’s blessing, if not his direct oversight. “It’s always collaborative with him, between us. But he trusts me to create the best possible story around this project,” Haines says. At press time, she was finalizing the score in preparation for the film’s April 14 premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival. By sharing these stories through the medium of film, Haines hopes to inspire social activism in the broadest possible audience—one even larger than the nearly 900,000 visitors who passed through the original exhibition on Alcatraz. In fact, the desire to address injustice and engender change now influences all of Haines’ public art projects. “I have been involved in human rights of one sort or another my entire life, [but] my private interests and pursuits and my professional ones weren’t always fully aligned,” she says. “It really wasn’t until I met Ai Weiwei and we began work on @Large that I realized I could really bring these two positions together in a life pursuit.”
Photography by: laos state flower postcard Courtesy of the Artist and FOR-SITE Foundation | cheryl haines portrait by Nina Dietzel | trace photo by Robert Divers Herrick courtesy of the FOR-SITE Foundation