Artists Ai Weiwei and Justin Brice Guariglia visit Puerto Rico as part of research into mass migration

Artists Ai Weiwei and Justin Brice Guariglia visit Puerto Rico as part of research into mass migration

NBC News by Laura van Straaten - 

The artist was drawn to Puerto Rico because more than 410,000 people have left the island.

Ai Weiwei’s journey to Puerto Rico began with an invitation from an old friend, the Brooklyn-based photojournalist and artist Justin Brice Guariglia, whose chief artistic interest is climate change. Guariglia’s friends Jennifer Bolstad and her husband Walter Meyer hosted them. The couple knows the island well and, through a nonprofit they helped co-found, were spending the week of New Year’s working with a band of volunteers from Puerto Rico and the mainland to bring solar power and sustainable redevelopment to the island.

Technically, refugees have been defined by international law since the end of World War II as people fleeing violence, persecution or war. And with that definition come certain protections and benefits. But Ai is among those calling for a revised definition that takes into account those who migrate because of disasters increasingly exacerbated by climate change, such as floods from rising coastal tides, famine caused by draught or, in this case, hurricanes.

Ai Weiwei, Justin Brice Guariglia, Jennifer Bolstad and Walter Meyer helped install solar panels atop a bakery owned by Maria Rosario Lopez in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Laura Van Straaten

“The whole landscaped has changed,” Ai said. “Those definitions certainly need to be changed. It takes global leadership to sit down and come up with a new understanding.”

Those who might be considered refugees by the current definition began leaving the island long before Ai and Guariglia arrived, with the people most in peril fleeing in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria. So to understand the crisis and why people fled, the artists came to witness the continuing daily struggles for those who remained.

And those who have stayed are feeling enormous stress, the artists quickly saw.

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