On a recent 10-day trip to Hong Kong, I spent much of my time embedded with students and other citizens protesting against an oppressive political system that lets China call the shots. I watched when Joshua Wong–the 18-year-old student activist who began what is now called the Umbrella Revolution–gave an impassioned speech to a 10,000-strong crowd the night Hong Kong Chief Executive Cy Leung reneged on his agreement to meet with protest leaders for talks. I watched when the police arrested and carried away protesters in Mong Kok. I watched when a man who was so distraught over the disruption the protests were causing climbed to the center arch of the Connaught Road overpass and threatened to jump. When you’re fighting for democracy, the stakes are spectacularly high on all sides.
The protest signage I saw reflected as much. In quiet moments, I was able to stroll around the protest areas and get a clear view of the hundreds of pieces of artwork that had been hanged, pinned, and taped to the makeshift barriers. Some of these artworks were simple pencil or ink drawings sketched onto looseleaf paper or notecards. Others were mass-produced signs by people I could only presume to be professional graphic designers. Still others were 3-D art installations you’d expect to see in the Tate Modern. All were a reminder that not only can art be a powerful form of protest but at a time when social media has enabled us to share images across the globe in seconds, art is often the quickest way to succinctly spread the protesters’ message: A poster can convey context and emotion across language barriers in ways traditional photo journalism cannot.
The imagery in the artwork ranged from the humorous (showing Hong Kong’s chief executive as King Kong) to the harrowing (one artwork shows a young female protester being verbally abused by an angry mob). The yellow umbrella is a common symbol throughout Hong Kong protest art as it blends the yellow ribbon–originally used to signify support of the protest–with the umbrellas protesters used to block the pepper spray and tear gas launched at them by police. Another common image is that of the wolf, which is used to symbolize the protesters’ main opponent, Hong Kong chief executive Cy Leung. The animal is used to depict him because in Chinese Leung’s last name sounds like “wolf.”
With the news last week that police were using chainsaws and sledgehammers to tear down the barriers–the very walls the artworks hang on–I thought it a good time to show off some of the most striking protest artwork I photographed during my time in Hong Kong.
Thanks to Helsa Chan for her work translating the Chinese text in all but a few of the artworks.