A week prior to my first ever visit to Alcatraz, a seventeen year old fighter of women's education exiled to England was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. She was reported to have been in a Chemistry class in school when she found out. Malala Yousafzai was on a bus coming home from school when she was shot in the head by the Taliban for her insolence and defiance against the misogynistic and oppressive dictate that women have no place in school.
It was creepy to step foot in Alcatraz. Now a national park, it once was one of the most formidable prisons in America. It so happened that the day of our visit, Ai Weiwei was running an exhibit with human rights and freedom as its theme. Already a harrowing place to begin with, an evocative art exhibit featuring one of the world's most outspoken artists provides a dimension to what it means like to be imprisoned. Ai Weiwei himself is held hostage back in Beijing in a way. His passport has been confiscated by his government and is not permitted to leave China.
Though we did not have time to see all of the seven Ai Weiwei exhibits (Alcatraz is a draining place heavy with emotional baggage), I was struck by the sheer amount of political prisoners held all over the wrold. Some are journalists. A lot are women. Names I've never heard of before. The pixelized images are created with legos, each about 10,000 bricks, assembled in Beijing in the studios of Ai Weiwei.
What a powerful and provocative exhibition. It makes me ponder: what is it that these people possess - Malala Yousafzai and Ai Weiwei - that so compels them to speak up about injustice and inhumanity without fear? They are extraordinary human beings, for sure. But can we do what they do? Are we doing enough? Social justice and democracy is a birthright for all. How are we able to emulate their loud voices, and in our own way, join their fight?
@Large: Ai Weiwei is on view at the Alcatraz in San Francisco through April 26, 2015. For information and tickets, click here.