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Ai Weiwei regains passport; social media and art world supporters cheer

The photo caption on Instagram was benign enough -- but it sparked an outpouring of support.

“Today, I picked up my passport,” Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei wrote beneath a selfie holding up his red passport. It’s been more than four years since the Chinese government seized Ai’s passport, making it impossible for the globally recognized figure to travel outside the country.

By noon on Wednesday, the Instagram post had generated more than 7,000 likes, 800-plus comments in multiple languages and empowering emoticons of all stripes.

“I was [poignantly] reminded that you have been unable to visit your own installations around the world when I visited the Alcatraz piece,” one of his Instagram followers wrote of Ai’s exhibition, “@Large,” which closed in April. The artist never attended it in person.

“Congratulations! let’s travel and never look back,” wrote another.

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Not being able to travel didn’t hold back the prolific artist from exhibiting internationally over the last few years.

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After being detained in March 2011 for 81 days under suspicion of subverting state power after openly criticizing the Chinese government – and soon after, having his passport revoked – the exhibition “Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” debuted at the L.A. County Museum of Art in August 2011.

“I’m curious, but happy for him,” said curator Franklin Sirmans of LACMA, who worked with Ai on “Circle of Animals.” “When we worked on the project together, he was not allowed to travel here, so I visited with him in Beijing. I can imagine what this means for him!”

“@Large,” held on Alcatraz island and addressing themes of freedom and imprisonment, among other things, drew nearly 900,000 visitors.

“It’s been really just short of miraculous that he’s been able to carry on, as an artist, and have these international exhibitions these last four years without ever seeing the potential sites or finished project,” said Cheryl Haines, who curated the “@Large” show.

“It’s a joyous occasion,” Haines added. “It will be wonderful for him to be able to visit some of the exhibitions upcoming, including the project at the Royal Academy in London which is opening in September. Being able to participate in person around these exhibitions will be wonderful.”

Larry Warsh, founder of AW Asia, which promotes art from Asia, and a close associate of Ai, was with him when the passport was returned.

“Was together when he got the passport. Incredible moment .....long overdue,” he wrote in an email on his return flight. “I had a feeling this was happening so thought I was best to be in Beijing, with him. To support the moment..”

Warsh said of Ai: “His receiving & holding the passport was a sense of obvious joy and calmness coupled with excitement. Truly a historical moment! One I will never forget.

“Everything now will be different,” Warsh said. “Hopefully life will be more stable and considerate to him. He won the battle. He is a real hero. Now to see his son ....”

Twitter, on which Ai has 279,000 followers, was ablaze with support for the artist as on Instagram.

“Well, there is a little flake of justice in this World afterall!” Steven H Lee tweeted.

Can’t believe #China returned #Aiweiwei’s passport to him. Honestly, in total disbelief. I wonder what his next move will be,” another person, @elleryprescott,” tweeted.

The answer to that question, in part at least, is the September show at the Royal Academy of Arts in Britain. The exhibition will feature Ai’s work from 1993 – when he returned to China from the U.S. -- to the present day.

Ai has not yet said whether or not he’ll travel to England for the show – but at least, now, he has the choice.

Twitter.com/@debvankin

David Ng also contributed to this report.


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