In March 2010, months after Liu Xiaobo was tried and sentenced to 11 years in prison, PEN’s Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs, Larry Siems, came back from a trip to Hong Kong and China with a suitcase of Liu Xiaobo’s poetry and video of a conversation he had with Liu Xiaobo’s wife, the poet and photographer Liu Xia.

That fall, days after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xia disappeared under house arrest, where she has remained ever since with almost no contact to the outside world. Despite her forced silence, the beauty of her courage and understated spirit were on full display at Columbia University last week, where her photographs are part of the exhibit, “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia.” Smuggled out of China before Liu Xia was placed under de facto house arrest, most of the photographs in the exhibition curated by Guy Sorman can be defined in one word: eerie.

Part of the collection, what Liu Xia calls her “ugly babies,” is an unsettling series of black and white photographs that show Brazilian rag dolls bound before open books, crying at open hands, and falling, with a silent scream, off the edges of rooftops.

Perhaps the most well-known photo is of Liu Xiaobo. In this one photograph, Liu Xia captures her husband bearing the weight of the nation, its past, present, and future and its vast conundrums as it trudges toward modernity; the pain and suffering of its people embodied in the frozen scream of the rag doll resting his on his shoulder. Liu Xiaobo holds the doll in one hand, propped up against his cheek, as the two of them gaze off in opposite directions.

I learned later that Liu Xia began shooting this collection while Liu Xiaobo was serving a three-year sentence in a labor camp in the mid-’90s—where they were wed, and where she dutifully visited him until his release in 1999. Professor Cui Weiping, a family friend, described Liu Xia’s photographs of the dolls as a way to express herself and her support for her husband by evading the camp censors and confusing “the ever-present ‘jailers’ gaze.’”

Through the course of their marriage, Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo have often written and created for each other, including Liu Xiaobo’s final statement prepared for his 2009 trial. Though he was not able to read these words, they have become well-known to those following his case:

Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.

Now I have to wonder and hope that in the silent space of Liu Xia’s prison, she is still able to create, somehow, and evade the censors once again.

The Silent Strength of Liu Xia will be on display at the Italian Academy at Columbia University through March 1, 2012.