Chinese authorities allowed dissident artist Ai Weiwei to see his wife on Sunday, the first time family or friends have had contact with him since police took Ai into custody six weeks ago, his sister and a family friend said.

The secretive meeting was launched Sunday afternoon, when Ai’s wife Lu Qing received a call from her local police station in Beijing, according to family friend Liu Xiaoyuan, an attorney.

Ai’s wife was then taken by authorities to an unfamiliar place in Beijing, where she was able to sit across a table from her husband and talk to him for 15 minutes.

Because the visit was heavily supervised by police officials taking notes, his wife did not ask him for details of his detention, Liu said. But Lu told Liu that Ai, 53, looked healthy. She said his blood pressure was being checked daily, and he was receiving medication required for his high blood pressure and diabetes.

“It’s a relief to know he is physically okay, but we worry long-term how the detention will affect him mentally,” said Gao Ge, the artist’s sister, who said her family had begged authorities for access to Ai since his arrest. 

Ai Weiwei speaks during an interview at his studio in Beijing in March 2010. (GRACE LIANG/REUTERS)

“He’s still being detained without any explanation,” Gao said. “Our hope is that the police will treat the case fairly and openly.”

Judging from his appearance at the meeting with his wife, Liu said, authorities appear to be holding Ai under some kind of house arrest, rather than keeping him in an official detention center.

“He was not wearing prison clothes. There was no handcuffs and his beard was not shaved,” Liu said.

Ai — an internationally known conceptual artist — has been the most prominent figure to be arrested amid a broader security crackdown in China that has netted dozens of human rights lawyers, activists, writers and bloggers. The U.S. State Department, the European Union and several human rights groups have denounced the detentions, which they believe is in retaliation for activists’ criticism of the Chinese government.

Chinese officials have said Ai is being investigated for economic crimes, and since his arrest, tax investigators have raided his office. Liu, however, said that if it were simply an issue of failing to pay taxes, Ai should be able to resolve it by paying a fine instead of being secretly detained.

Ai’s wife could not be reached for comment Monday. According to Liu, at Sunday’s meeting Ai’s wife was warned by authorities not to talk to media about the visit.

Staff researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.