Art and politics collide on fringes of Hong Kong art fair

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Three months after police quashed the last of Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy street protests, its artists are keeping the movement alive with displays of edgy, protest artwork on the fringes of Asia’s leading contemporary art fair.

A spate of events around Art Basel Hong Kong will draw top galleries, artists and collectors from around the world over the next week or so.

Artist Kacey Wong, known for creations such as a pink tank paraded during street protests, moulded a series of miniature wax “black cop” statues to signify an abuse of power when police chased down and beat unarmed protesters last year.

“I created this candle in the form of a policeman holding a stick, and you can light it up so the fire actually melts the form away and transforms into light,” Wong said. “So it’s like a transformation through destruction.”

Wong was one of many artists who flocked to the student-led “Occupy movement”, when activists blockaded major roads for 79 days to demand China’s Communist leaders allow Hong Kong to hold a fully democratic election for its next leader.

The protracted occupations, the most significant populist challenge to China’s Communist leaders since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, inspired artists to a whole new level.

The protest zones exploded with gutsy, often witty artwork including posters lampooning Chinese leaders, as well as a “Lennon” wall outside government headquarters plastered with demands for democracy and freedom in the former British colony that returned to China in 1997.

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Tucked into the massive harborfront marquee of the Art Central satellite fair was a tribute to the activist art, with a black banner reading “Occupy Art Central” hung above a cluster of works and yellow umbrellas.

The raingear came to symbolize the movement after being used by activists to shield against police pepper spray and batons.

Across town, artist Phoebe Man was serving “sickly sweet” edible cakes laced with political statements criticizing China’s suppression of freedom in Hong Kong.

“The action of eating is interesting because it can mean to internalize something that you agree with ... or it can mean that you don’t like something and that you can destroy it.”

Despite these initiatives, some fear artistic freedom in Hong Kong has narrowed, with some galleries or artists facing pressure to shun sensitive or subversive art critical of China.

“Art is just a tool to express the spirit of yearning for freedom,” said Wong. “And that is what we are being deprived of.”

Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Clarence Fernandez