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Hong Kong Protests, Silenced on the Streets, Surface in Artworks

HONG KONG — As tear gas and fiery street clashes swirled around her two years ago, the Hong Kong painter Bouie Choi wondered how she would eventually render them on canvas.

The answer, exhibited at a local gallery about a year later, was “borrowed space_borrowed time,” her suite of brooding, ethereal landscapes that evoked ancient Chinese scroll paintings and captured a city transformed by civil unrest. Specific visual references to the protests were subtly blended into layer upon layer of washed-out acrylic brush strokes.

“My previous landscape works were quite peaceful and distanced from what happened in reality; they were more surrealistic,” Ms. Choi, 33, said in an interview. “But this exhibition was quite different because the relationship between me and the city had changed.”

The antigovernment protests that rocked the financial hub in 2019 brought torrents of anonymous street art and political posters that lionized protesters as heroes or explicitly poked fun at Hong Kong’s government and its allies in Beijing. Some of that work was produced by people with established careers in fine arts.

But two years later, much of the aggressive protest art has faded and the police have effectively silenced the demonstrations. Many residents are deeply anxious over a national security law that China’s central government imposed on the territory last summer and the mass arrests of opposition politicians, activists and lawyers that followed.

Artists, writers and filmmakers know that whatever they create could run afoul of the national security law, which criminalizes anything that the Chinese government deems terrorism, secession, subversion or collusion with foreign powers. Institutions like art galleries are wary of taking risks. One curator said privately that talking about art and politics was especially sensitive ahead of Art Basel Hong Kong, a major international fair that opens this week.

Some Hong Kong curators have been quietly asking artists to tone down certain pieces, consulting with lawyers about how to avoid prosecution under the national security law and even calling the police to discuss potentially sensitive works before exhibiting them, said Wong Ka Ying, a member of a union that represents about 400 Hong Kong artists.

“We now act like we’re in Beijing or Shanghai,” she said.

Yet several young Hong Kong artists are daring to produce work about the 2019 protests anyway, albeit with heavy doses of abstraction and ambiguity. A few talk about their artistic process in polemical terms; others, like Ms. Choi, say they are merely responding creatively to the experience of living through a once-in-a-generation trauma.

Hong Kong artists have been slyly commenting on politics and social issues for decades. In the years after the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997, many were inspired by waves of pro-democracy demonstrations that are now seen as preludes to the giant outpouring of civil disobedience in 2019.

Eight years ago, for example, the artist South Ho walled and unwalled himself with bricks that said, “Made in Xianggang,” the word for Hong Kong in Mandarin, mainland China’s dominant tongue. Photographs of his stunt were exhibited in 2017 by the Asia Society’s Hong Kong gallery, alongside other pieces that conveyed a sense of helplessness toward Beijing’s tightening grip on the city.

Now the space for expression is narrower. A government funding body recently said that it had the power to end grants to artists who promote “overthrowing the government,” and state-owned newspapers have denounced a collection by a local museum that is expected to open soon and owns works by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

More than a dozen Hong Kong artists and gallerists either declined to be interviewed for this article or did not respond to requests for comment.

Some artists have forged ahead despite the risks.

Notably, the artist Giraffe Leung painted a traffic scene on wire mesh to depict fences that went up near a cross-harbor tunnel that antigovernment protesters targeted in 2019. He also used yellow tape to frame walls where the authorities had painted over antigovernment graffiti.

“They cover it or throw it away,” said Mr. Leung, who is exhibiting a piece at Art Basel Hong Kong this week. “But if a city or a society allows room for speech and freedom, it would permit these things to emerge.”

Last month, the Hong Kong branch of the Goethe-Institut, the cultural arm of the German government, hosted “Unreasonable Behavior,” a mixed-media solo show by Siu Wai Hang that included photographs of the 2019 protests that the artist had punched, ripped or cut.

In an interview, Mr. Siu said he had damaged his own work to hide the identities of protesters he had photographed and to symbolically criticize the manner in which the authorities had smashed the 2019 protest movement. “It was also a kind of therapy for me,” he added.

Other works address the protests with an even subtler touch.

At Blindspot Gallery last fall, the painter Un Cheng exhibited Teenage girls with bricks,” an abstract work with collapsing perspectives and vague pastel figures. The gallery’s curatorial statement said the work depicted female protesters who had been discouraged by male comrades from joining the front lines of street clashes.

And this spring, at the Asia Society’s Hong Kong gallery, the artist Isaac Chong Wai installed “Falling Carefully,” a mixed-media piece featuring three life-size mannequins of the artist, each suspended in a different stage of free fall. A nearby wall displayed his sketches of protesters and riot police officers during antigovernment demonstrations in Hong Kong and beyond, including Armenia, Russia and Uganda.

Mr. Wai, who splits his time between Hong Kong and Berlin, said from Germany last week that the installation was an effort to find connections between individual acts of falling and “oppressive forces against vulnerable groups.”

“We normally think of images that we can see, ‘Oh, someone got pushed,’” he said. “But from where? Where does this power come from?”

Ms. Choi’s scroll-like urban landscapes are not overtly political, but viewers who lived through the 2019 demonstrations will recognize details from them that are loaded with symbolism. A hazy image of a parking garage in one painting, for example, recalls the parking garage where a student fell, suffering fatal injuries, as police officers clashed with protesters.

Henry Au-yeung, the director of Grotto Fine Art, the gallery that exhibited the paintings last fall, wrote in an essay that they depicted “social unrest,” but also that “clear images do not mean clarity of event; what is veiled can well be the hidden truth.”

Tiffany May contributed reporting.

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