Six remarkable activist symbols
Activist art has existed for as long as there have been social movements. There's something about fighting the good cause that stokes our creative fires. The desire for social and political change awakens the stand-up comedian, philosopher and cartoonist in us.
In countries ranging from Thailand to Chile, dissenters have chosen amusing mascots, including inflatable rubber ducks, Japanese cartoon hamster Hamtaro, Harry Potter, 'Freenix' origami cranes, and cute pig and dog from online forums. Today we have chosen 6 iconic symbols which were representative across various social movements:
1. Three finger salute
The three-finger salute is a common sight during demonstrations in Myanmar, Thailand and Hong Kong. Some may identify this symbol from the blockbuster Hunger Games series. It initially made an appearance at the 2014 anti-coup protest in Thailand, where it was co-opted as a symbol of solidarity and defiance against the authoritarian governments.
Mixed media artist Sina Wittayawiroj has imagined the three-finger symbol using sculpture-like illustration, demonstrating the provocative attitude that the royal family exhibited towards protesters by driving through them.
2. Raised fist
Raising a fist during protests is not anything new. It originated back to the French revolution and has been used in movements ranging from working class solidarity to anti-fascism. In recent years, it has been the symbol of Black Lives Matter movement, representing power, resistance and perseverance.
Flowers, as delicate and fragile as they seem, are seen in protest as symbols of peaceful resistance. Protesters in Myanmar have been placing flowers in public to commemorate those killed by military forces. Women taking part in the protests in Belarus carry a white or red flower and offer them to baton-wielding riot police. The slogan "the more you pick, the more we bloom" is frequently quoted in Thailand, meaning as more protesters get arrested, more people are inspired to join the movement.
The artwork 112, an allusion to the lese-majeste law enshrined in Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, depicts how the bright flowers surrounding a woman cannot mask her helplessness aroused by the injustice of this law.
Eyes do not only represent the Windows of the Soul, they often serve as symbols for police brutality. In Chile and Hong Kong, there were frequent reports of ruptured eyeballs and broken bones inflected by police pellets and tear gas canisters.
Take a look at this 23-foot-long tapestry created by embroiderer Lilian Urzúa and illustrator María Ignacia Jerez, who invited artists to stitch bleeding eyes in honour of the 359 recorded eye injuries during the Chilean protests.
5. Lennon Wall
The first Lennon Wall appeared in Prague, Czechoslovakia, following John Lennon's murder in 1980. It was full of art, lyrics from the Beatles, and other messages relating to various global causes. In recent years, Lennon Walls re-appeared during the democratic movements in Hong Kong. They were created by protesters pasting colourful Post-It notes, written or drawn with messages advocating for democracy, freedom, and other universal values.
View Ricker Choi’s artwork which captures the spirit of Lennon Wall. You can feel the strong sentiment mourning the loss of the physical space. As the enactment of the National Security Law, the Lennon Wall and other forms of free speech have become history in the city.
Colours have been used to paint protests in a new light. It generally clarifies the side chosen by people. Hong Kong was divided into yellow (pro-democracy) and blue (pro-government and pro-Beijing) camps. France's Gilet Jaunes movement saw protesters wear the yellow high-visibility jackets, legally required to be carried in vehicles, as a symbol of rising diesel taxes.
Red is often seen as a colour of revolution. In Myanmar, protesters donned red, a colour associated with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. Women in Russia expressed solidarity the wife of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in a reference to the red top she wore when her husband was sentenced to 3.5 years in jail.
The use of different forms of activist art shows that people are not afraid to think and take a stand. Protest symbols have the power to influence public opinion and inspire action. Looking for the meaning behind the symbols can reveal a great many things about the reasons for public dissatisfaction that may have escaped your radar. You come away appreciating the human spirit and creative core a little bit more.
If you find the symbolism behind these artworks interesting, you will enjoy decoding this work by Justin Wong, who summarised the whole pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in 80 symbols.