Amnesty for Art

Published on Cobo Social, 16 February 2017

Martin Parr, ‘HONG KONG. Happy Valley Racecourse’, 2013.

As far as you look back in history, the arts have always interacted with the power structures of their time. Artists, writers, poets, filmmakers and musicians have been indispensible critical voices, reacting to cultural and political discourse, connecting with social movements. They can be a powerful voice of dissent and transgression to political and social conventions and they can contribute an alternative dialogue about issues that are not or cannot be addressed in public. Art is never far removed from politics. After all, politics shapes and impacts all of our lives.

Art bears witness. Artists have always held up a mirror, reflecting the society and times in which they live. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” jazz musician and civil rights activist, Nina Simone, once asked. If you’ve been anywhere near the internet or news the past couple of months, you will have noticed a gnawing growing sense of urgency and resistance taking root in the art community, as well, of course, the wider public. As America ventures into a new post-truth era, and the post Cold War neo-liberal political and social order is challenged in the United States and Europe – giving way to an erosion of civil liberties and freedom of speech, and racist and hateful rhetoric – a seedbed of art activism and political engagement has fomented. Artists are trying to change and affect the political discourse not just in the art world, but the world at large. Art with a political message is flooding our social media threads, turning up on front covers of magazines (Barbara Kruger’s October 2016 New Yorker magazine cover of Donald Trump with the word ‘Loser’ emblazoned across it), and is showing up in protests as banners, placards, posters (Shepard Fairey’s ‘We the People’ anti-Trump posters), installations and ‘happenings’.

Taking place against this charged and changing political and social landscape the latest art festival in Hong Kong couldn’t be more timely. Kicking off this week Hong Kong will plays host to Amnesty International’s Carnival exhibition curated by French born Hong Kong based Caroline Ha Thuc. The project, a fundraiser for human rights non-governmental organization Amnesty International, shines a spotlight on human rights and freedom of expression, prodding visitors to question the nature of freedom, and the values they take for granted. “Art is by essence free and subjective, which makes it the relevant medium to deal with freedom,” states Ha Thuc. “Art constantly conveys things about society and as a result it’s a strong political tool. Artists are the canaries in the mine; they are the first to respond to change.”

anothermountainman, ‘ Lanwei 53/ Wonderland 04/ Friendship/ Beijing’, 2012

The week long multidisciplinary and multi perspective project is comprised of a series of fundraising dinners, an online art auction, an exhibition, and a programme of public events. Work from fifty artists is brought together for the exhibition and online fundraising auction, proceeds of which will go to Amnesty International Hong Kong Section Human Rights Education Charitable Trust to deliver human rights education programmes in schools and communities, to monitor and defend Hong Kong’s human rights and freedom of expression, and to campaign against social injustice.

Amongst the auction selection are works from renowned international artists Martin Parr and Julian Opie, and street artists JR, and Shepard Fairey, who use the urban environment as a platform for visual political protest. French artist JR, covers large buildings in cities around the world with giant black and white posters drawing attention to the plight of minorities and social injustice; Shepard Fairey, the urban artist provocateur (whose Barack Obama ‘Hope’ posters of 2008 gained international attention), has contributed a portrait of Chinese born artist Ai Weiwei, a symbol of dissent and freedom of expression in China. Another street artist, Invader, taps into Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution protests of 2014 for inspiration with his ‘Umbrellas of Hong Kong’, a drawing of a yellow umbrella in his signature pixels. An exhibition at Kong Art Space will feature works from 21 Hong Kong-based artists responding to the theme of Freedom of Expression in the context of Hong Kong and China, including Chow Chun Fai, Kacey Wong and Kwan Sheung Chi. “Every artwork defends our right to freedom of expression; either by praising its power, highlighting its vulnerability, or expressing fears about its reduction” states Ha Thuc. The response to the theme is diverse; some works, like Chow Chun Fai’s Bubble (2016) are symbolic. Others, like Kacey Wong’s sculpture of a noose, (Controlling Device, 2017), referencing the kidnapping of Hong Kong booksellers by Mainland officials last year; Ivy Ma’s Tiananmen Square and Umbrella Revolution inspired drawings; and Carol Lee’s work exploring the differing ideas of freedom in Hong Kong under British colonial and Chinese rule, are more cynical and satirical.

Shepard Fairey, ‘Ai Weiwei’, 2014


Ha Thuc has also curated a free public programme of events – which includes workshops, theatre, debates, yoga, dance sessions, and automatic writing – intended to encourage participants to explore their creativity and foster critical engagement and thinking. “I want people to realise they have a role to play as well as express themselves, to experience freely, and to share. And they need to think about limits [to freedom] and trigger reflection”, explains Ha Thuc. “The exhibition is intended to foster critical thinking and offer alternative perspectives on the world we are living in. Critical thinking is fundamental, especially now. If we stop critical thinking, it’s how totalitarianism started. It’s important to cultivate in order to defend against that,” she stresses.

American philosopher, John Dewey, once declared, “All art is a process of making the world a different place in which to live.” Carnival aims to makes the invisible visible, drawing attention to issues and truths ignored or overlooked, drawing attention to the disjuncture between politics and reality. By doing so it helps viewers and participants to ask themselves important and pressing questions, and to see the world from a different perspective.


16-26 Feb 2017
KONG Art Space
Online Auction

Yevgeniy Fiks, ‘Stalin’s Atom Bomb a.k.a Homosexuality’, No. 2, 2012

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