Someone should preserve Hong Kong’s protest art before it’s too late

Protesters have a new name for Hong Kong’s Civic Square, which fronts the under-siege government complex. To them, it is Umbrella Square, thanks to the adopted symbol of the city’s protest movement, examples of which are stacked into a giant sculpture nearby.

The long, multi-lane stretch of road that runs behind the government complex has become an outdoor art gallery, attracting strolling office workers, families, and tourists who stop to ogle and photograph the students’ creations, and in some cases add their own flourishes.

There is plenty to see, including the “Umbrella Man”:

A statue holding a yellow umbrella set up by students stands outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. In an apparent concession to authorities warning pro-democracy protesters to clear Hong Kong's streets by the beginning of the work week, students occupying the area outside city government headquarters agreed Sunday to remove some barricades that have blocked the building's entrance during the weeklong demonstrations. But it was not immediately clear how significant the move was and how much it would defuse the standoff, with many protesters vowing to stay in the area.  (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Stormy weather. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

An entire side of a building, nicknamed the “Lennon Wall,” features tens of thousands of messages of support from around the world, scribbled on sticky notes that someone keeps stocked at the site:

A woman looks at messages of support for pro-democracy demonstrations on a wall, as protesters block areas around government headquarters in Hong Kong October 7,2014. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong rolled into early Tuesday with hundreds of students remaining camped out in the heart of the city after more than a week of rallies and behind-the-scenes talks showing modest signs of progress.   REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW) - RTR497KG
That’s a lot of Post-Its. (Reuters/Tyrone Sui)

A giant concrete pillar covered with yellow ribbons and messages outside of the Legislative Council offices:

Messages by pro-democracy protesters are left on circular notes featuring an umbrella illustration outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong October 10, 2014. Hong Kong student protesters said on Friday they were determined to maintain their campaign for full democracy, undaunted by the city government's rejection of talks aimed at defusing a standoff that has shaken communist China's capitalist hub.  REUTERS/Bobby Yip  (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR49M5P
Tie a yellow ribbon ’round the old concrete pillar. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

The aforementioned umbrella tree sculpture and a massive canopy made of stitched together umbrellas:

An art installation made from umbrellas by a local artist is seen outside the government headquarters (R) in Hong Kong October 3,2014.Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying agreed on Friday to open talks with pro-democracy protesters but he and his Chinese government backers made clear that they would not back down in the face of the city's worst unrest in decades. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR48RYA
Instant shade. (Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

Not to mention dozens of banners in English and Cantonese (and cartoons, like the one that depicts student activist Joshua Wong as Batman):

Protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters, in Hong Kong September 29, 2014. Hong Kong democracy protesters defied volleys of tear gas and police baton charges to stand firm in the centre of the global financial hub on Monday, one of the biggest political challenges for China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago. The Communist government in Beijing made clear it would not tolerate dissent, and warned against any foreign interference as thousands of protesters massed for a fourth night in the free-wheeling, capitalist city of more than 7 million people. The banners read, "I want a real general election" (C) and "Embracing freedom in the storm" (R). 

  REUTERS/Carlos Barria (CHINA) - RTR486RY
“I want a real general election,” the center banner reads. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

When, and how, will all of this protest art come down? The protests are technically illegal, held under a constant threat that the government will order police to clear the sites.

And while there are more important things at stake, namely the political future of Hong Kong, it would be a shame if the protest banners, statues, and other cultural artifacts were lost or destroyed. They would make an excellent permanent exhibition about Hong Kong’s 2014 democracy movement, regardless of its outcome.

Such an exhibition is unlikely to be held at Hong Kong’s government-run museum of history. Local theater blog HKELD said today that it is contacting galleries and museums in Hong Kong, seeking preservationists to give a home to the art. A private dealer and collector has offered to store a few key works, including “umbrella man” and notes from the Lennon Wall, the blog noted in an update this evening.

It might not hurt to look farther afield, too. London’s Victoria & Albert Museum’s ongoing “Disobedient Objects” exhibition examines “the role of objects in movements for social change,” and displays “arts of rebellion from around the world.” Right now the show includes suffragette teacups, inflatable cobblestones, and orange dwarf hats worn to protest against communism in Poland in 1988, among other things. A few umbrellas would fit right in.

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