Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting more than 1.3 million visitors every year. No doubt a good percentage of them come to see “The Rock,” the isolated former home of notorious criminals such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and the dramatic setting for cinematic escapes starring Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery.
But there is more to Alcatraz than the federal penitentiary it housed for 30 years and the action movies it inspired. Before there was a federal prison, there was a military penitentiary that held conscientious objectors.
In 1895, 19 members of the Hopi tribe were incarcerated at Alcatraz for refusing to send their children to government boarding schools. After the penitentiary closed in the 1960s, several dozen Native Americans of various tribes seized the island to bring attention to the U.S. government’s treatment of native people. The occupation lasted almost two years and has been called one of the most successful American Indian protest actions of the 20th century.
In new and original works, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has taken this complex history and woven it into the site-specific exhibit "@Large," on view on Alcatraz through April 26, and presented by the FOR-SITE Foundation. Since the show opened in late September, it's estimated that more than half-a-million visitors have seen the show.
In the seven installations strategically placed throughout the island — including spaces normally off-limits to tourists — Weiwei invites visitors to think about human rights and freedom of expression. He puts a face to people imprisoned for their beliefs or affiliations and gives them a voice. By the final installation, he has ensured they are not forgotten.