Hong Kong Protest Art: From Street to Gallery

Chow Chun Fai, Hong Kong International Airport, 2020, oil on canvas, 166 x 200 cm. Image courtesy of Gallery Exit.
Frog King, Frog Happy Harvest, 2019, mixed media on canvas, 117 x 91 x 3 cm. Image courtesy of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
A parody of subway information sign created by Phesti. Image courtesy of the artist.
Pepe stickers in Central, Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Pepe the frog in Hong Kong.
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K11 HONG HONG'S SILICON VALLEY OF CULTURE

Since June 2019, Hong Kong was rocked by protests of an unprecedented scale that took over the city in response to the controversial extradition bill, a proposed bill that would allow for the transfer of fugitives to Mainland China. Over the course of the protests, which remains ongoing, other criticisms of the Hong Kong government emerged, from police brutality to the alleged erosion of the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement. The protests were characterised by an explosion of creativity, resulting in a proliferation of art pieces across Hong Kong’s streets, social media, and galleries.

TEXT: Leanne Mirandilla
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists

 

Most of Hong Kong’s populace has had to deal with psychological and emotional ramifications of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, and the art community is no different. Local artist Chow Chun-fai, who is well-known for his paintings inspired by Hong Kong cinema and social issues, responded to the movement by creating a series of paintings, many of which depict scenes from live streams or journalistic photographs. Documentary-like and neutral, the works show scenes as they happened without imposing any judgment. The paintings are mostly small, with the largest being Hong Kong International Airport (2020), a two-metre-wide piece depicting the sit-ins at Hong Kong International Airport. The paintings are currently showing in the artist’s exhibition “Portraits from Behind” at Gallery Exit.

 

Chow Chun Fai, Hong Kong International Airport, 2020, oil on canvas, 166 x 200 cm. Image courtesy of Gallery Exit.

 

While Chow is an artist who frequently engages with local politics through his work, artists who typically shy away from the subject found themselves affected by the events too. Frog King (Kwok Mang-ho) employed multiple references to the protests in his recent exhibition “Frog King Kwok: The Living Legend” at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, despite staunchly declaring himself an apolitical artist. Frog Happy Harvest (2019) features umbrellas at the centre of the composition, while the artist stated that the drips of paint in Frog Xpression and Tears of Hope A+B (2019) are meant to be tear gas. During Smoke of Change (2019), his performance art piece that opened the exhibition, Frog King performed amidst a haze of tear gas-like smoke and referenced the lasers carried by protestors, which police controversially categorised as offensive weapons, by using a flashlight.

 

Frog King, Frog Happy Harvest, 2019, mixed media on canvas, 117 x 91 x 3 cm. Image courtesy of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.

 

Many local artists, however—both professional and amateur—were creating protest art during the movement itself, while some were involved much more directly. Kacey Wong, who creates site-specific installations and performance art pieces, and who has been involved in protest art projects since 2011, joined the demonstrations while enacting several performances. These included dressing as a Roman soldier while carrying a shield reading “anti-totalitarianism” with a crossed-out Communist symbol (The Shield); dressing in all black and waving a black version of the Hong Kong flag (Black Flag); and dressing as Moses while holding a tablet inscribed with the protest movement’s five demands (The Five Commandments)—possibly referencing the religious community’s participation and “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” being adopted as a protest song.

The reach of local protest artists also extended overseas. Street artist Boms, who plastered the city with his black and white protest posters depicting clusters of umbrellas and Chinese calligraphy, saw his pieces sent to London and Amsterdam through artist platform Young Blood Initiative, which also held exhibitions in Hong Kong to raise funds to aid protestors. The exhibition “Water & Ashes For Creative R(Evolution),” held at art space DOC in Paris, brought together digital art, photography, performance pieces, and other work pertaining to the protests by a group of artists, most of whom hailed from Hong Kong. Notable pieces included Our Vantage (2019) by the artist dubbed Harcourt Romanticist, an adaptation of Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting commemorating the July Revolution in France, Liberty Leading the People (1830), and I See You (2019), an adaptation of René Magritte’s Not To Be Reproduced (1937) by well-known political cartoonist Justin Wong, whose work has appeared in local newspapers such as Ming Pao.

However, much of the most impactful protest art wasn’t created to be displayed in a gallery, but disseminated in pamphlets, through social media, or by any other means. Protestors have worn these pieces on backpacks; displayed them on signs; airdropped them to passers-by; posted them on walls and buildings across the city; incorporated them into “Lennon Walls”, colourful walls of Post-its with democratic wishes for the city inspired by Prague’s graffiti Lennon Wall of the 1980s; and used them as display icons for their social media profiles. Among these are logos such as a black version of Hong Kong’s flag with two of the bauhinia petals wilted or burnt. Another version of this involves the flower being bloodied.

Many of these pieces can’t clearly be traced to an artist, at times because the artist decided to post the work anonymously or under a pseudonym to protect their privacy and safety. The artist who goes by Phesti, for example, created a series of pieces employing a similar design style to MTR signs, but with messages urging Hongkongers to stand together, or rebuking police officers for their excessive use of violence against Hong Kong citizens. In an interview with Time magazine, he stated that “people […] in the peaceful camp don’t dare to protest on the front line and engage in more aggressive action,” but that he felt that this kind of creative work made such people “feel like they can still participate in something and find a way of saying what’s on their mind.”

 

A parody of subway information sign created by Phesti. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Other works drew inspiration from viral photographs of individual protestors. There was the widely dubbed “Shield Girl,” a young woman photographed sitting in a meditative pose before a row of riot police equipped with shields, who famed Australia-based Chinese dissident artist Badiucao later depicted in an artwork. A female volunteer medic who was shot in the eye with a beanbag round and injured went on to feature in countless art pieces. She even inspired the four-metre-tall Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue, which was crowd-funded online and shows a woman bedecked in protest gear. The statue was displayed at various locations across the city—including the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Lion Rock—and appeared at protests.

The anonymity of many protest artists reflected the largely faceless, leaderless nature of the movement itself. Another aspect the two had in common was their flexibility. Much like the way in which protestors adapted to changing circumstances as required, the art they created was designed to be easily shared among a variety of different groups. For example, Pepe the Frog, a cartoon created by artist Matt Furie in 2005 that became a well-known internet meme, was co-opted by the movement to feature in fliers and messaging app sticker packs. Protestors also designed informational graphics in the style of memes popular in chat groups run by middle-aged local women, in order to better appeal to that specific group. It seems that when it comes to 2019 Hong Kong protest art, the Bruce Lee quote “be water”—another piece of pop culture picked up by the movement—is applicable for its resistance to being pinned down.

 

Pepe stickers in Central, Hong Kong. Image courtesy of Pepe the frog in Hong Kong.

 

 

 
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