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Freedom Through Art: Challenging Censorship & the Violation of Human Rights

Posted by Stephanie Ander...
17 December 2014 - 5:46pm

In a Nov. 30th post I wrote about The Power of Real-Time Art to Transform the History Curriculum and referenced a hush-hush new art installation that is part of Vancouver Biennale's 2014-2016 exhibition Open Borders/Crossroads.

The wait is over.  Today, the worldwide debut of Ai Weiwei’s installation, F Grass, was unveiled in Green Harbour Park at the edge of Coal Harbour. Like the artist himself, F Grass is multifaceted, profound, political and humorous.

Of particular interest to history educators, the curriculum developed for this installation offers several provocative access points for teaching about censorship and human rights, as well as targeted opportunities for historical thinking.

As detailed in the seminal documentary Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, during China’s Cultural Revolution, Weiwei’s father, the famous poet Ai Qing, was targeted and the family sent to a re-education camp.

In one inquiry challenge, students work with the historical thinking concept of cause and consequence to identify some of the immediate and long-term effects of the Cultural Revolution for Weiwei, for Chinese society as a whole and for our global, transnational society.

Other challenges have students exploring the Tiananmen Square Massacre and China’s current censorship and freedom of expression laws, in relationship to Weiwei’s activism and art.  For example, students are asked to choose a piece from Ai’s body of work and treat it as historical evidence.  They must scrutinize it as the product of the historical context in which it was created and examine its materials, symbols and metaphors to posit how the piece might have and/ or continues to represent a challenge to Chinese government authority.

In addition to the release of this curriculum, to spearhead the year-long exhibition of F Grass, Biennale is calling the public to action.  In support of Weiwei and others around the world fighting for freedom of expression, it’s launching “What the F”.  This campaign asks citizens and classrooms to create their own works of art around the letter “F”, inspired by the themes of Ai’s work.

And, on Thursday December 18th, it’s hosting a live Twitter event where panelists from all walks of life and areas of specialization will share their provocative viewpoints about F Grass and the role of art in public space.

So, if you're a history educator looking for a way to breathe some fresh air into thecurriculum and incite student dialogue around human rights in this last week before the holidays, get your classroom in on the action. Join these events by Tweeting and posting photos to Instagram using @van_biennale, #van_biennale and @aiww.

I can’t think of a better way for students to engage in global philanthropy during this season of giving.

Stephanie Anderson Redmond is a Ph.D. student and instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, at UBC.  She holds a keen interest in history education and its function in museums and other sites of public pedagogy.  Her research looks at the communication of Canadian national and counter national narratives in museums. Follow her on Thursday’s Twitter panel @StephAndRed

Link to Ai Weiwei's webpage on