It would seem that everywhere you look, liberal democracy is under threat. From the horror of a return to power by Trump in the US, Putin in Russia and Xi in China, we live in the era of the strong man. Power is what drives them and any challenge must be crushed with brute, unforgiving force.

One of the most brutal was the put down of the student protests in Hong Kong in 2019-20. Nightly battles were fought between students demanding the right to democracy and the Hong Kong Police under the watchful eyes of Carrie Lam and her political masters in Beijing. The sheer undemocratic catch-all of the 2020 National Security Act put paid to any right to protest with the threat of a lifetime in prison.   

Many people chose to leave Hong Kong and there is a growing Hong Kong community in exile. One such exile is Martin Lever, a long-time HK resident who left as “I found myself getting increasingly angry and sad at the unnecessary implementation of laws the were essentially robbing young Hong Kongers of the same opportunities for self-expression I had enjoyed”. Lever relocated to North East England with his family.

Photo courtesy of Martin Lever.

One thing tyrants hate is art and creativity as they generally are too stupid to understand it and they can’t control it. Lever continued using his creativity to voice his objections, and this exhibition at Saan1 Gallery in Manchester’s Northern Quarter is the result. Silent Protest II is a collection of strident, colourful and bold paintings on the theme of the youthful demonstrations. Predominantly black, white and red, they focus on representations of the students as angry caricatures with their mouths often covered in Chinese flag face masks; the canvases are strewn with slogans from Mao’s Little Red Book, as Lever says, littered with good advice for the young rebels. Stylistically they recall early Keith Haring with their strong brushstrokes and direct messages. Lever sees it as his “duty to speak out about the situation there….as futile as this may be”.  

Silent Protest II is a timely reminder of the strength of art as a carrier of opposition and creativity as an act of protest. Lever may see it a futile act but he also sees it as a duty. It is also important that as the Hong Kong rebellion fades from our media driven news cycle and is replaced with some other horrific act of repression, and there are many to choose from, that artists, filmmakers, poets and musicians use their work as an act of witness and remembrance. So that we don’t forget. Just as the Chinese Communist Party attempted with Tiananmen Square, authoritarian regimes want to erase our collective memory of the terrible things they do to suppress democracy. It is art’s duty to remember. As we move into a period of great uncertainty with destruction at the forefront of our political agenda, art and culture have never been so vital. As the tyrant’s finger hoovers over the nuclear button, we raise our fists against them with a metaphorical paint brush in clenched hands.  

Lever’s Silent Protest II may be, in his eyes, an act of futile duty. But it is also an act of courage, defiance and, above all, beauty. Recently, a landmark site of Hong Kong cultural resistance, Mount Zero bookshop, closed its doors. Above a door it reminded customers that ‘Ideas are bulletproof’. 

By Robert Hamilton

Photos courtesy of Martin Lever, including the main image