Typically, biographical works aren’t about the entirety of the subject’s life but rather the moments in that life that are most significant. For biographies involving artists, those significant moments are ones that define and shape that artist’s creative vision. An autobiographical work from an artist has the added benefit of the artist illustrating their own vision of how they see the world that may or may not come through in critical interpretations of their work. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei decided to literally illustrate his life story, with the illustrations provided by Italian cartoonist Gianluca Constantini, in the book Zodiac: A Graphic Memior.
Weiwei might not have the name recognition of Banksy or Pollock, but his contributions are wide-ranging. A well-known artist and activist in his native China, Weiwei’s artwork often speaks to China’s stances on human rights and democracy. He was the son of Chinese poet Ai Qing, whose own views led the Weiwei family to live in exile for nearly 16 years. Eventually making his way to America, Weiwei studied animation and became acquainted with Beat poet Allen Ginsburg. In 1993, he returned to China to take care of his ailing father where he continues to influence the art scene in China as well as demonstrating how art can be used as a method of protest.
The path Weiwei takes to tell the story of his life isn’t a straightforward progression through the various milestones. As the title of the book suggests, the book’s chapters are divided up according to the Chinese Zodiac, the animals of the Zodiac representing different personality aspects and, in this case, different moments in Weiwei’s life. Along with the Zodiac, Weiwei weaves in poetry, bits of Chinese folklore, and conversations with his young son that allow a unique reflection of Weiwei’s life and how he creates. Indeed, as much as Weiwei’s book is a biography, it’s also a manifesto as to how art, protest, and living intersect.
For a work that talks so much about the power of art, Constantini’s artwork offers a surprisingly minimalist style. The pages are largely white with black lines and very little color. However, the images drawn by Constantini are very realistic, even in the moments of the book that veer into folklore. This minimalist approach, however, does benefit when it’s Weiwei himself that tells his story. Weiwei’s face as rendered by Constantini shows lines etched in his face that Weiwei has truly earned by being a political prisoner and relying on his art as both an escape and a voice.
While the images of this book might not pop as much as other graphic novels, it does fit into the trend of biographies eschewing bright colors and dynamic angles. Rather, it tells Weiwei’s story without a lot of graphical distractions. This book would be a solid addition to any adult graphic novel collection, or even a biography section, but it also serves as a great discussion of how art influences society and vice versa.
Zodiac A Graphic Memoir
By Ai Weiwei
Art by Gianluca Constantini
Ten Speed Press, 2024
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Chinese,
Character Representation: Chinese,