Are You OK?


Once in a lifetime experience today: Ai Weiwei’s @Large art installation on Alcatraz.


Find a way.

If you can’t get to Alcatraz to see it, click that link up there and explore.

"My words are well intended and innocent."

“My words are well intended and innocent.”

Because of Ai Weiwei’s message, I have been talking to my second grader about political prisoners. We explained how Ai is held captive by his government. How he designed this exhibit without ever having come to the prison island. How he uses his notoriety to call attention to others held by their governments. It’s a lot to take in when you’re seven. It’s a lot when you’re 46. I want Vivi to have experiences like this so that one day, she will say, “Ah. I see.”

The exhibit begins with a Chinese dragon kite made up of the words of people held for speaking out. In the next room, the expansive floor is covered with portraits of dissidents–made of L10443270_10204143099690760_4507446045742884007_oego. Gay and I taught Vivi how to find a name of a prisoner, look it up in the index books, and learn more about why they are held. We found two young girls who are held captive in North Korea because their father didn’t return. We found a long list of prisoners in Bahrain and talked about the Arab Spring. We explained dictators and juntas and freedom of speech. And there we were on Alcatraz, where we also talked about bad choices that reap bad consequences, like when you shoot someone or don’t pay your taxes like Mr. Capone.

A later part of the exhibit is called “Yours Truly.” In the Alcatraz 10562503_10204143104650884_8705653949776895557_omess hall, where prisoners assembled for meals three times a day, visitors like us could write postcards to the political prisoners we had learned about in the earlier exhibit. Each card was decorated with an image inspired by the country in which the prisoner is being held. Vivi wanted to write to the little girls, but their address is unknown. After she processed that information, she chose a card with a falcon on it. I chose a bumblebee for Ethiopian journalist¬†Reeyot Alemu.

Vivi’s pen paused over the white space on the back of the card. “Do I write in English? What if they don’t speak English?” The volunteer guide by our table overheard Vivi’s question and said, “Many of these people do speak English. Even if they can’t, the fact that they’ve received a card and know they aren’t forgotten is powerful.”

Vivi ruminated for a few more moments.

“You could draw a happy picture for him,” I suggested.

She shook her head. “I want to write something.”

She leaned forward to focus on making her letters evenly and clearly. When she sat up, I read the message she had written to Abdullah al-Hamid, an imprisoned human rights activist in Saudi Arabia:

“Are you OK?”


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11 thoughts on “Are You OK?

  1. Kendra

    Wow…I didn’t know this exhibit was there. I might have made more of an effort to visit if so. I’ve never been to Alcatraz because of my fear. Hearing this about a freedom exhibit is fully of irony but also very interesting.

    1. Support

      Yep! It just opened about a month ago and it runs through April. I’m not sure if the exhibit will travel after that–probably will. It’s just so powerful in Alcatraz!

  2. August McLaughlin

    What a touching and poignant story, featuring an incredibly thoughtful girl. I had to read it twice!

    I met a man who’d been imprisoned at Alcatraz and was there signing books last year — he’d made a bad choice as a teen that led to most of the rest of his life behind bars.


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