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Thursday September 22, 2016
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Three of the 22 rubber boats hanging on Palazzo Strozzi’s facade are reflected on a window shop, as part of the installation entitled ‘Reframe’ by Ai Weiwei, in Florence September 21, 2016. — Reuters picThree of the 22 rubber boats hanging on Palazzo Strozzi’s facade are reflected on a window shop, as part of the installation entitled ‘Reframe’ by Ai Weiwei, in Florence September 21, 2016. — Reuters picFLORENCE, Sept 22 — Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has hung bright orange rubber dinghies from the walls of an elegant Renaissance palace in Florence to draw attention to the plight of refugees, but some complain that the installation ruins the harmony of the city centre.

The boats frame the second-floor windows of the Strozzi Palace and are part of Ai’s first career-spanning retrospective in Italy, entitled Libero (Freedom), which opens tomorrow and runs until January 22.

As a symbol the boats resonate in Italy, where migrants arrive almost daily by sea on often-flimsy vessels from Africa. But the installation has prompted some strong criticism on social media, including from right-wing political parties.

“I never expected that this boat installation would capture people’s imaginations so much, and that people would be so critical of it,” Ai told reporters yesterday.

But he said he welcomed the controversy, adding that he considered refugees his “brothers” and “heroes of our time”.

“I have enormous respect for those people who fight for their freedom,” he said.

Twenty-two rubber boats hang on the Palazzo Strozzi’s facade (right) as part of the installation entitled ‘Reframe’ by Ai Weiwei in Florence September 21, 2016. — Reuters picTwenty-two rubber boats hang on the Palazzo Strozzi’s facade (right) as part of the installation entitled ‘Reframe’ by Ai Weiwei in Florence September 21, 2016. — Reuters picAi’s support for refugees is rooted in his own experiences.

After his father was labelled an enemy of the Chinese state, Ai spent much of his childhood in remote corners of the country in forced internal exile with his family.

Apart from the facade of dangling boats, which is titled Reframe, the exhibition includes Lego-block portraits of four Florentine dissidents of the past, including Dante Alighieri, author of the mediaeval epic poem “The Divine Comedy”.

In 2011, Ai himself was arrested for allegedly publishing subversive material on his blog. After 81 days in jail, he was put under house arrest and kept under constant surveillance. The government gave him back his passport last year.

Ever since, he has been travelling the world documenting and calling attention to the plight of refugees and migrants.

In February he wrapped the giant columns of the Berlin Konzerthaus with 14,000 life jackets brought from the Greek island of Lesbos, a stepping stone for hundreds of thousands of boat refugees last year, many fleeing wars in the Middle East.

Italy has taken in more than 400,000 boat migrants since the start of 2014 and is currently housing some 150,000 asylum seekers in state-funded shelters. — Reuters

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