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An illustration by Joanne Liu shows a person oblivious to the cries for democracy from Hong Kong protesters, depicted as ants. Demonstrators have been in the streets for months speaking out against a proposed bill to allow extraditions to mainland China.

Joanne Liu

Eighteen weeks ago, before unrest swept her city, Joanne Liu posted a whimsical drawing to Instagram of a girl with a ponytail cheerily stepping through a crowd. “Wearing sandals while doing serious work stuff makes me feel like I’m on holiday,” she wrote on the digital image. Ms. Liu is an artist in Hong Kong with a flair for vivid colours that she uses to illustrate postcards and children’s books. Her company is called All Things Bright and Beautiful.

On June 14, however, she posted a much darker drawing of a black smear, with eyes open as it sinks below the water. She captioned it “Reality.”

It was the opening of a summer of unrest for this city – and, for Ms. Liu and dozens of other artists, the starting point of a protest that has been both defined and propelled by art.

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Less than a week earlier, a million people had taken to the streets of Hong Kong demanding the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill. On June 12, police used rubber bullets, tear gas and baton rushes to clear crowds of demonstrators who had encircled the city’s Legislative Council building. It was the beginning of a movement that has thrust authorities into a series of violent confrontations with protesters in helmets and gas masks.

What’s happening on the ground, however, often takes its lead from what is taking place online.

Jasmine Tse

Demonstrators have used forums and cellphone chat apps to co-ordinate rallies. Those same digital spaces have created channels for art, much of it posted anonymously, to be shared at immense speed. On the chat app Telegram, a single group devoted to protest promotional material now counts more than 71,000 members.

The speed of digital illustration has allowed the city’s artists to outmanoeuvre communications efforts by authorities, rapidly turning events into pregnant symbols, such as stylized images of a bloodied eye that emerged after a protester was nearly blinded by what is believed to be a police beanbag round.

Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao, who has produced a series of Hong Kong-related work over the summer, calls it “anti-propaganda propaganda.”

Dozens of new pieces are posted every day, ranging in style from traditional watercolour to satirized Communist Revolution propaganda to manga to boldfaced typography to illustrated how-to guides – to Ms. Liu’s work, which mixes images of childlike simplicity with devastating commentary.

In one, she draws a police officer, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and a protester. They are captioned “Blindingly brutal,” “Brutally blind” and “Brutally blinded.” In another, she places 14 eyes onto the forehead of a girl. Its caption: “Every time the HK government speaks I need an extra eye to roll.”

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Joanne Liu

Ms. Liu likens her sketches to a journal, a form of self-expression. But they have found a much broader audience. In mid-August, some of her images were printed on 20,000 posters and postcards and distributed to protest marchers. Other protest art is transmitted cellphone to cellphone in subways, or posted on Lennon Walls around the city. “Artists can use words or pictures to motivate people to do something, or promote something – or allow you to see something more clearly,” Ms. Liu says.

Art and protest have gone hand in hand for at least a century, with historians tracing a line between Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralism movement in the 1920s, through Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in 1937 and, in the modern era, Banksy’s work in Gaza.

In Hong Kong, though, some argue that art has been fundamental to sustaining a protest that has now endured more than 86 days.

“Art elements are essential for the whole movement,” Badiucao said.

Artist Badiucao depicts Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam covered in sticky notes, evoking the so-called Lennon Wall on a staircase outside the government offices. That was inspired by a wall in Prague where, in the 1980s, Czechs wrote messages of protest against the Communist regime alongside John Lennon lyrics.

Badiucao

As protests approach the three-month mark, even startling new developments – such as police pointing guns at protesters two weekends ago – have done little to alter what has become a tense stalemate, with protesters making demands while government leaders refuse to concede. Few demonstrators see reason to believe they can prevail.

By creating a steady supply of new images, however, artists have delivered daily injections of fresh creativity – and, with them, motivation and hope – into the movement.

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“It elevates the daily struggle,” Badiucao said. His images have placed the stakes of the protest into stark relief. In one, entitled Beijing’s Fear, a protester in a black shirt carries a flame next to an array of explosive sticks arranged into the shape of the map of China – a potent illustration of the worry among Chinese leaders that demonstrations in Hong Kong will ignite rebellion against Communist rule elsewhere.

Art has become important enough to the protest that Kap Chuen Ng, an artist better known as Ah To, has largely stopped taking to the streets. Instead, he stays at home and watches live-streamed video “so that I can respond at once,” he said. He draws to provide solace to those fighting the police, but admits that some of his work is imbued with helplessness. In one image, a red tear falls from a closed eye. Its caption: “I fear that next time I open my eyes, I will have lost Hong Kong as well.”

Much of the imagery circulating through the protest is not “art as fine art,” said John Batten, a Hong Kong art critic and curator. But “that doesn’t demean it at all,” he said. Indeed, he said, protest art has become an integral part of political discourse in the city’s contentious environment, where protesters are pitted against the power of the Chinese state media propaganda apparatus.

“It comes down to sloganeering, it comes down to quips, it comes down to quick statements,” he said. “Democracy is now a slogan.”

Jasmine Tse

Some of the images being circulated subvert famous works of historical propaganda, such as recruitment posters in the First World War and Chinese iconography of the Mao Zedong era.

The protests themselves have occasionally employed dramatic aesthetics as well, including a human chain two weeks ago that brought a line of light-waving demonstrators to the heights of the city’s Lion Rock and, last week, a demonstration against police treatment of women in which people placed purple filters over cellphone flashlights.

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At the same time, more formal elements of the city’s artistic community have also drawn inspiration from the protests.

Fashion photographer Dicky Ma, whose work has been used by Revlon and Timberland, has filled his Facebook artist page with images of tear gas swamping rioters. Sound artist Cheuk Wing Nam has brought a portable phone booth to protests, giving demonstrators space to record voice messages. Some are poignant. “Husband, I am so sorry I always leave you alone … to join demonstrations,” one woman said.

In April, before the proposed extradition bill sparked broad public backlash, art activist Kacey Wong helped draw attention to its potential dangers by rolling out a portable jail cell. He dressed up as a mainland Chinese police officer, equipped with handcuffs, a baton and a whip, and invited protesters to come inside to sample life in prison.

”The function of protest art is not to try to solve political problems, but to really bring forward the problems that aren’t being seen. By seeing the artwork, you can then realize, ‘Oh, that is an issue,’ ” he said.

“Political art actually involves a kind of moral judgment,” he added.

Kacey Wong plays the accordion inside his mobile prison cell, called The Patriot, at his Hong Kong studio in 2018.

ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Artists have their own reason to protest, fearing that influence from Beijing has infringed on freedom of expression in the city.

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“It’s highly affected of the space for our creativity,” said KY Wong, an artist who is among the founders of the Hong Kong Artist Union. “That’s why when the extradition bill was pushed forward, we responded.”

In a way, the city’s art community has also cleared a path for protesters. Over the past decades, groups of artists have staged “guerrilla actions” to advocate for the idea of public space in the dense city. Demonstrators claiming roads as their own, even when such assemblies are considered illegal, are following in those footsteps, said Wen Yau, an artist and researcher who wrote her PhD thesis on art and activism in Hong Kong.

“Reclaiming the rights to the city is related to the notion of the commons – and this is the core of civil society,” she said.

At the same time, violent protests have prised open new space for artistic freedom. Five years ago, in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, demonstrators occupied city streets for 79 days in a protest suffused by optimism that public demands for universal suffrage would pressure Beijing to grant Hong Kong greater democratic freedoms. Art at the time reflected that.

“Most of the people were still peaceful and extremely restrained, thus when I drew something slightly more radical – like criticizing or insulting the police – I would be drowned out by large groups of angry readers,” illustrator Jasmine Tse said.

This summer, she has felt no such constrictions. In late July, she completed an image of Hong Kong laid to waste, with buildings torn apart and tear gas wafting on the street as protesters with umbrellas stand together, facing away from the city.

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“I just want to portray a destroyed city juxtaposed with protesters who represent hope,” Ms. Tse said. “A beautiful future is built on the rubble of yesterday.”

Jasmine Tse


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