(Rachel Ramberg/CPR News)

No stranger to conflict, Ai Weiwei's art is social and political commentary.

In his home country of China, Ai has clashed with the government and been surveilled, beaten and detained by police. That activism has put him on the map internationally. Now his first major public exhibition, on tour since 2011, has landed in Denver.

You’ll find the 12 bronze busts of his “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” in Civic Center Park, encircling part of the Voorhies Memorial fountain.

"With so much happening in the world, to have an artist such as Ai Weiwei, who is such a strong voice for those that often are not heard, it’s inspiring," says Tariana Navas-Nieves, who directs cultural affairs for Denver Arts & Venues.

The city paid more than $100,000 to bring Ai’s art to town. That money comes from things like seat taxes and concession sales at city-owned venues.

"I had to write letter of request, and those letters are apparently then shared with Ai Weiwei, and then he makes the final decision," Navas-Nieves says.

Different Zodiac Heads series have traveled to more than 40 places, managed by a New York City group called AW Asia. These heads are based on actual artifacts from Beijing that European troops looted in 1860 and sold off around the world.

Fine art rigger Roger Machin of Chicago's Methods & Materials leads his crew during the installation of Ai Weiwei's "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" sculptures in Denver's Civic Center Park, Oct. 4, 2017.

Corey Jones/CPR News

"There were many attempts by outside forces and forces within China to really destroy incredible works of art,” says Taliesin Thomas, the group’s exhibition manager. “So these ‘Zodiac Heads’ are a contentious issue along those lines."

The auctions of those historical heads have outraged China, which has demanded their return. The country has retrieved seven of the pieces, sometimes paying millions of dollars. But Ai Weiwei has questioned their symbolism and value for a regime that condemns culture and free speech. So the artist reproduced the heads and has put them in front of a wider audience.

"Even if you don't have any knowledge of that backstory and that complicated historical perspective, the 12 Zodiac animals themselves are delightful on their own terms," Thomas says.

For Nga Vuong-Sandoval, who serves on Denver's Asian American Pacific Islander Commission, it's not about the political message. It's about seeing contemporary Asian culture represented on this scale.

"We’re not the most visible community, and to see someone who looks like us, who has similar backgrounds and upbringings, it brings us tremendous cultural pride to see that," she says.

"Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" is on display through Oct. 17, 2018. A small companion exhibition is also on display inside the McNichols Civic Center Building.