12 months ago 79 Hong Kong students gathered to protest the need for greater democracy, for suffrage for all.
Putting aside the politics, I want to focus on the moment that this protest became a movement and how that enabled a far larger number of people to stand up for what they believe in.
As protestors prepared to hold a minutes silence, the police launched volleys of tear gas into the crowd. Protestors protected themselves with face masks, raincoats and umbrellas.
Until that moment, the symbols around the protest had been a combination of student photos and yellow ribbons. Useful but not catchy, not united around a single cause or concept.
In that moment, as people shielded themselves from the onslaught of tear gas, a more powerful symbol of resistance arose in the form of a very simple, non threatening item…the umbrella.
Functionally an umbrella protects us from the sun, from the the rain; umbrella organisations protects those under it, an umbrella shelters those under its care. In this moment, it protected those demonstrating for their rights from the powers that be.
The yellow umbrella, a coloured filled with sunshine, hope and a promise for the future, combined with a symbol of protection became a lasting symbol of resistance, galvanising protestors as the Umbrella Revolution.
Now anyone could be a part of the protest, from images and meme’s created and shared across the internet to carrying a yellow umbrella down the street. Art was’t reserved for just for the internet, as yellow umbrella sculptures and installations sprang up across the city.
While the movement may not have achieved its aims to make Hong Kong more independent and more democratic, it did successfully create a symbol that will long live on in the hearts and minds of all people, in Hong Kong and globally.
Visual symbols that combine the pain and hope of the people affected bring people to a cause, enabling it to live on, long after protestors have gone home or been imprisoned. They enable people to easily express their beliefs, whether thats by using it to tell their own story (by design, sculpture, image) or simply carrying an umbrella, the symbol enabled the movement to spread far beyond the protestors blockading the central streets of Hong Kong.
The power of art, particular protest art, is the ability to capture the hearts and minds of people who believe what you believe and enables people to participate, to become part of the tribe, the movement, while remaining within their comfort zone. Not everyone wants to face the tear gas but (almost) everyone wants to share their opinion in some way.
Of course, there are many symbols that fail to capture hearts and minds, its irrelevant whether they belong to a movement or a brand, to us humans, they are all the same.