Individual Activist: Artivism at Home & Abroad

Written by Emma Jones

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In 2011, street artist IndividualActivist (IA) found herself sprinting across Manhattan’s West Village in the dead of night, spray paint and stencils in hand, and angry officials from the Chinese consulate behind her. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei had just been arrested and detained at Beijing Capital International Airport by a police contingent from the Chinese government. “I was so upset when he was taken,” IA said. “They had raided his studio, no one knew where he was. I just felt so helpless.”

But then, upon hearing someone say “Ai Weiwei is missing,” the experienced artist had the idea to create a stencil of a missing poster for Weiwei—one of her first ventures into street art. IA sent it to friends in other countries and pasted it across New York, but she didn’t stop there: she pasted it right up onto the Chinese consulate in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. “They took down the signs, of course, but they couldn’t take down them all,” she recounted. “It was on the sidewalk in places that weren’t their space, so they couldn’t take down those.”

IndividualActivist was no stranger to a daring escape through city streets, whether in China or America. The first piece of protest activism she did in China was on June 4th, 2005. She deliberately chose the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 to sit on Tiananmen Square in Beijijng and draw with the intention of making a statement on freedom of speech. She sat atop one of the massive light posts in the area with a sketchbook in her lap, and began drawing the Gate of Heavenly Peace, but with one key difference: Mao Zedong’s portrait was omitted from the famed architectural structure.

She sat atop one of the massive light posts in the area with a sketchbook in her lap, and began drawing the Gate of Heavenly Peace, but with one key difference: Mao Zedong’s portrait was omitted from the famed architectural structure.

“I didn’t really think about all the attention I would draw,” she said. “I have bright red hair, I’m not Chinese, and I was drawing something, so everyone wanted to see what I was working on.” Eventually, she realized that one of the people who came over had a radio in his back pocket. “He kept pointing and saying ‘Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong,’ and I just played stupid like I didn’t know what he was talking about,” IA recounted. Eventually, she got the sense that she needed to leave for her own safety, and as soon as she got up from her seat men followed her on her way out.

That same trip, IndividualActivist told her friend who she was staying with in Beijing about the altercation. He introduced her to student leaders at Peking University involved in the 1989 protests, and she put up on more piece of protest art that trip. “There’s this famous triangle that’s a ‘freedom of speech’ area by Peking University,” she recalled. “So, I put up this sign that read ‘Do you remember what happened here in 1989?’” IA and her cohorts ran under a stairwell and watched as students gathered around the English-language poster.

“There’s this famous triangle that’s a ‘freedom of speech’ area by Peking University,” she recalled. “So, I put up this sign that read ‘Do you remember what happened here in 1989?’” IA and her cohorts ran under a stairwell and watched as students gathered around the English-language poster.

“A truck pulled down the poster and zoomed away,” she said. As her street art tag suggests, part of what makes IA’s work  effective is her willingness to trailblaze ahead on her own. I sat down with her during a time when China is in the news more than ever to discuss her past in activism and her relentless, far-reaching passion for human rights and direct action across the globe.

Where Japan and Korea have developed pop-culture appeal in the west, China remains misunderstood by a great many westerners—stereotyped as either a drab, totalitarian dictatorship or the jade figures and qipaos of the distant past. China is rarely given much nuance in its depiction, and IndividualActivist’s over a decade of Chinese direct action and protest experience has given her a subtle understanding of the country’s history and politics.

IndividualActivist first encountered artist Ai Weiwei when she attended a talk he was doing at Cooper Union with Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter. When Weiwei brought up the blocking of Twitter on Chinese internet, Dorsey mentioned that he was not aware of it. In yet another instance of standing up all on her own for what she believes in, IndividualActivist quite literally got up from her chair and asked Dorsey: “With all due respect, you own Twitter and don’t know that it’s blocked in China. How could you not know that?” She and Weiwei then connected over social media over a shared passion for the power of art for social change.

In yet another instance of standing up all on her own for what she believes in, IndividualActivist quite literally got up from her chair and asked Dorsey: “With all due respect, you own Twitter and don’t know that it’s blocked in China. How could you not know that?”

“What’s smart about Weiwei’s work is that he realizes there’s only so much he can do about the Chinese situation, but he’s taken up all these other causes, like refugees,” IA said. Weiwei himself was who inspired her handle: IndividualActivist. “My whole point with the name is that every single one of us is an individual activist,” she explained. “You can pick the smallest thing, reaching out to someone you know is struggling, giving a dollar to a homeless person.” But after Ai Weiwei was taken, IA was further inspired to use her art to spread his message into the United States: even on the Chinese consulate itself.

“My whole point with the name is that every single one of us is an individual activist,” she explained. “You can pick the smallest thing, reaching out to someone you know is struggling, giving a dollar to a homeless person.”

In her stencil of Weiwei, the paint drips down the lettering in an effect that looks almost like the words themselves are bleeding. His portrait is in a somber grayscale. But once he was freed, she pasted a “returned” postal sticker over Weiwei’s face on her original “Ai Weiwei Is Missing” piece. The original had the text in both Chinese and English, and meant to draw attention to the fact that many people in the United States are unfamiliar with Ai Weiwei and human rights crises.

Though activists often emphasize unity, IA’s focus on small, personal work has given her a strong sense of self in both her art and her activism. “I’ve found it’s better to make and do things on your own, because with an entity like the Chinese government, you won’t get anywhere with them.” She expanded: “I’ve learned a lot over the years. You go in so innocent like ‘Oh my god, I want to make a difference.’ But then as you get older, you realize how difficult the work is.”

“I’ve learned a lot over the years. You go in so innocent like ‘Oh my god, I want to make a difference.’ But then as you get older, you realize how difficult the work is.”

IA has made intermittent trips to China since the early 2000s, and now resides in SoHo, but has not been able to return due to the COVID-19. She hopes to be able to return to China once the pandemic subsides, but for now, she is focused on her art career and using creative means to push United States. For all of IA’s modesty and calm, there is no doubt that she is an accomplished activist with a complex understanding of different factors in Chinese politics.

From the first time I spoke with her, I was entranced by the stories she was able to tell and her intelligent, unique perspective on the purpose of art in activism. She has participated in a die-in (a form of protest involving lying on the ground to simulate death in order to draw attention to a crisis) for the Students for Free Tibet movement, met the Dalai Lama, still stays in touch with the daughter of Uighur dissident Ilham Toti, and rubbed elbows with the last Emperor of China’s best friend. But she has noticed that when Chinese dissidents enter the American political sphere, they are often “scooped up by the right wing.”

Through her years of visiting China, she has had relationships with activists like Wei Jingshing, human rights leader and author of the landmark political essay “The Fifth Modernization,” and Cheng Guangcheng, a Shangdong-born civil rights activist known suing the Chinese government for excessive enforcement of the one-child policy. However, she is by no means hesitant to give them a piece of her mind when they align themselves with Trump or far-right values in the United States.

IA knows that the battle is far more complicated than left versus right or Biden versus Trump. She remarked: “These days, a lot of us are relieved that Trump didn’t win, but we can’t just be like ‘everything is back to normal. We need to push Biden and keep fighting to make things better.” She expressed hopes that Biden would make “smart moves” in relation toward the Chinese, and even shared with me that she had filled out a form to work with the Biden administration. “I probably won’t get it,” she said. “But I’d love to work with them in some kind of creative and different way.”

“These days, a lot of us are relieved that Trump didn’t win, but we can’t just be like ‘everything is back to normal. We need to push Biden and keep fighting to make things better.”

IndividualActivist exemplifies someone whose empathy and strength inspires me, but I know that the last thing an activist wants is to be lionized. I have my own connections to China that my conversations with her made me think more deeply about. In my academic career I have been studying Chinese art and history for the past few months, somewhat in a whim in a college course. I’ve become enthralled by artists like avant-garde video installation artist Cao Fei who tackles the plight of women in China, and performance artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who uses firecrackers and gunpowder to create mind-boggling pieces such as “Sky Ladder.”

My retail job at the Chinese-American “friendship store” Pearl River Mart—which was once investigated by the FBI simply for selling Chinese goods—has led me to involvement in the local community in Chinatown and a desire to learn Mandarin. Connecting with IA only intensified this interest. Of the multitude of places on my list to travel whenever it is safe and financially feasible again to get on an airplane, Beijing is high on the list. “When you go to China, it changes you,” IndividualActivist said, confirming my thoughts. “It changed the whole course of my life.” In the meantime, I’m going to take the time to research more Chinese artists and dissidents and let that inspire me to be my own individual activist.