Painting Hong Kong in the Gap of Sense Memory and Collective Memory

Clara Cheung


Unlike many other former colonies, Hong Kong did not gain independence after the British  Government left on 1 July 1997.  It was handed over to the People's Republic of China (China) without a referendum.  Rey Chow, a scholar in comparative literature and Hong Kong studies, pointed out the challenging in-betweenness faced by Hongkongers in 1992, before the handover:

Between Britain and China, Hong Kong’s postcoloniality is marked by a double impossibility — it will be as impossible to submit to Chinese nationalist/nativist repossession as it has been impossible to submit to British colonialism.[1] 

Despite the pessimistic nature of Hong Kong’s decolonisation process, scholars in Hong Kong studies emphasise the importance for the people in Hong Kong to develop their distinctive subjectivity, and to continue to write and rewrite Hongkongers’ narratives in a decolonial context.[2] Indeed, in the post-handover period, there have been different waves of social movements in Hong Kong, and the urge for a distinctive local identity has grown stronger each time. The most recent one, the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (Anti-ELAB) Movement in 2019, was the largest anti-government movement since 1997.[3] Protesters in the movement faced different levels of confrontations with the police and encountered traumatic experiences. Between May and October 2020, forty-seven political actors joined a free art workshop named Art in Action for Political Actors (Art-in-Action), offered by a group of artists and social workers, to share their traumatic experiences in the social movement through painting. More importantly, the political actors expressed the will to show their paintings anonymously in the future to overseas audiences. In a sense, these paintings function both therapeutically and as their visual testimonies. The project catalogue, titled Recollections of the Actors, has been published and is currently distributed in the network of the project initiators.  

As stated in the introductory passage of the project catalogue, the project’s objective is to provide an opportunity for the political actors to reflect on their experiences in the movement, which may involve “emotional injuries.”[4] The participants “brought with them a sentence or a phrase, which had impacted them during the protest.”[5] They “were asked to re-present their subjective feelings with lines and colour patches on paper, while meditating on the written fragments.”[6] Memory preservation is important in the aftermath of the Anti-ELAB movement, because, as I will argue, this protest is part of the larger decolonisation project to help with the formation of the subjectivity of Hongkongers. Although there exists a huge amount of news images and videos about the movement in the mass media, the personal sense memories and the intimate impacts on individuals can hardly be revealed. This is due to the difficulty of communicating traumatic experiences in general, and the situation becomes even more complicated when the degree of political censorship and oppression keeps escalating.  

This article is a case study of the Art-in-Action workshop, examining how contemporary art practice, in relation to collective trauma and sense memory, helps with Hong Kong’s decolonial self-writing. In order to understand the workshopping process, I interviewed one of the project initiators, A. Artworks printed in the catalogue are also studied and analysed. The following essay begins by outlining the painting process in the workshop in relation to the framework of art-as-therapy. It then analyses the intersubjectivity in the self-writing process for the political actors in Art-in-Action, and further explains the importance of self-writing in decolonisation by providing the social context of the post-handover Hong Kong. The article concludes with an analysis of the display of Sister Corita Kent’s prints in the workshop and the possible overseas exhibitions demonstrating the potential to use intersubjective self-writing with art and “empathic connectivity” as one of the tools for the ongoing search for Hongkongers’ cultural identity.[7]


Although acknowledging the therapeutic function of art-making, A and her team did not intend to provide clinical treatments for the participants. There was no psychotherapy or verbal therapy in the workshop. As an artist and art educator herself, A was also aware of how some pioneers in art therapy, like Edward Adamson in the 1940s, found the art-making process to be self-regulating and did not require much assistance from art therapists.[8] This approach in therapy with the arts is referred to as art-as-therapy or expressive art therapy, which encourages one to express oneself through art and art-making.[9] Art psychotherapy focuses more on the cognitive insights reflected in the artworks and involves more verbal processing, but both art psychotherapy and art-as-therapy emphasise providing a safe and comfortable environment for the participants to explore their creativity, and this is the approach undertaken by the Art-in-Action workshop.[10]  

A and her teammates developed the workshop space and facilitated the painting process based on their previous experiences in art-making, teaching and social service. For example, they chose to keep the project low-key, staying out of the police’s radar, in order to let participants feel safe to join. In terms of the facility, painting tools such as brushes of different sizes were prepared, and the colours were mixed for the participants prior to their arrival. Each participant had their own painting space. Participants could choose their comfortable painting positions by taping their A2-size papers on the wall at any height that suited them. Some chose to stand up, while others preferred to sit down on stools or on the floor. A said that the reason for painting on wall spaces, instead of tables, was to allow the participants to be able to step back from their paintings to review their own works, as well as their memories, from a distance.  

Each painting session lasted about three to four hours and involved no more than four participants. Including A, there were at least two artist facilitators each time. The process began with everyone closing their eyes for a minute, and then a ten-minute meditation with limited verbal guidance. A explains that the purpose of meditation was to allow the participants to calm down after arrival, so that they could begin to feel their own heartbeats and recall their memories. Afterward, A would give a brief introduction about the art prints by Sister Corita Kent (1918–1986), which were the only visual reference materials in the workshop. Except for the beginning and occasional one-to-one conversations between the facilitators and participants, there was no group conversation in the painting sessions. The general atmosphere of the workshop space was rather quiet.

After the introduction, the participants began to work in their own spaces separately. A recalled that five participants had studied arts or design, but the remaining did not have any particular art training. Regardless of their background in art, participants were invited to use about ten minutes to experiment with brushes of various sizes to paint shapes. The facilitators would tell them what they sense or see in the experiments, without commenting on whether the paintings were beautiful or not. For example, in the series titled Popo are here… and gearing up (Figs. 1 and 2, 2023), participant thirty-seven (37) painted memories from what 37 viewed through the binoculars in the role of sentry on the frontline during the 2019 movement.[11] The work’s first draft is composed of two irregular black shapes that contain some short green vertical strokes and horizontal stripes in the colours red, blue and white. After receiving feedback from the facilitator, 37 modified the composition creating two more obvious circular shapes inside a black rectangle, making the images inside the circles clearer. Once the participants developed the confidence to paint, they did not seek further advice. 

After the first experiment, each participant would spend some time looking at the white paper posted on the wall, and try to recall the visual impressions from the movement that were related to the selected phrase. Often, when they remembered certain moments from the movements, they would become emotional. A said that when it happened, the facilitators would try to keep the emotions from developing into further breakdowns, by encouraging the participants to express their feelings through painting. At the end of each session, the participants were invited to tell the facilitators more details about their works. In the project catalogue, participants’ statements were documented, accompanied by editors’ annotations to provide the context of the experiences. 37 explained that during the process of doing the first painting, the feelings of fear and thrill came back. However, 37 felt more positive after making more paintings. The painting process reminded 37 not to forget the movement and to live a positive life while waiting for chances for the next movement.[12]

Figure 1. Project Catalogue: Recollections of the Actors (2023), 244–245.

Figure 2. Participant thirty-seven, Popo are here… and gearing up, Project Catalogue: Recollections of the Actors (2023),  246–257. 

Participants were invited to paint seven pieces repetitively in the workshop, and variation was welcomed. A explained that this was firstly because her team had found seven different places overseas for long-term storage and possible exhibitions. Secondly, drawing from her personal experience in art-making, A knew that repetition helped an image creator see the same subject matter differently. During the workshops, participants who were more engaged in the frontline of the protest would repeat the exact same images more often, whereas those who might not be as affected tended to have more modifications in the seven paintings. In some cases, participants were able to find new ways to look at their memories throughout the painting process. For example, in the series titled Emergency Broadcast (Figs. 3 and 4, 2023), the central space of each painting is surrounded by numerous dark green rectangles, black dots and some curve lines pointing toward the centre of the picture plane. Through each iteration, the opening space that connects the centre and the edge at the bottom of the composition becomes larger and larger as the surrounding shapes and strokes become denser and more intense. In the first six paintings, there are two small figures in the central space toward the bottom, but only one figure in white colour was left in the last painting. In commenting on their work, participant thirty-one (31) explains that “Each of us have to deal with the ordeals in our own way. In the end, we must face reality alone . . . Now I am determined to confront my fears, and commit myself to solving the problem and not just addressing the symptoms.”[13] 

Figure 3. Participant thirty-one, Emergency Broadcast, Project Catalogue: Recollections of the Actors (2023), 210–211. 

Figure 4. Participant thirty-one,  Emergency Broadcast, Project Catalogue: Recollections of the Actors (2023), 212–213.

Another example is It’s my duty by participant ten (10) (Figs. 5 and 6, 2023). In the first draft of this series, one can see the flag of China at the top left corner. Underneath the flag there are blocks of dark red and light blue, some vertical rectangular shapes in brown, and four small stick figures inside the red block. At the centre toward the right sits a tilted oval with two curvy black lines and a lip shape in red. After the first draft, 10 decided to cover the whole area on the left-hand side with black paint and used more soft and dry strokes in light colours on the right-hand side. Some flower petals in light pink are also situated above a long diagonal stroke in purple at the centre. The black shape in the later iterations of this series became lighter. Except for the central image, other elements all were painted with softer and drier strokes in the later iterations. 10’s statement shared that the image that came to mind at the beginning of the painting process was the scene of being arrested. As they were being pressed down to the ground by riot police, 10 saw another girl, also on the ground, smiling at 10 as encouragement. Throughout the repetitive painting process, 10 chose to hold onto the feeling of encouragement but allowed some of the memories to pass through. The memories that were screened out were visually blurred at the edges in the last few iterations. Such a selection process often appears in general consolidation of memory.  As trauma theory shows, repetitive acts are one way for a subject to search for new meanings located within the traces in memory, as traumatic experience often resists cognitive processing.[14]

It follows that traumatic experiences are more often associated with “sense memory,” versus “common memory” which is constituted by language in a discursive framework.[15] Both the sense memories and common memories were recalled in the Art-in-Action workshop. While sense memories were evoked in participants’ paintings, the selected phrases and statements of the participants made use of the verbal language to associate one’s common memory with the sense memory. In the analysis of affective experiences in art (which can also be understood as aesthetic experience of affect), art theorist Jill Bennett refers to Deleuze’s notion of “encountered sign” which is the sign that is felt, instead of being understood through cognition. Sensation is not the ultimate end though. The affective experience serves as a catalyst for critical inquiry and, therefore, helps one feel and see the truth rather than thinking truth.[16] I argue that the critical dialogue with the imagined other in Hong Kong’s self-writing should not only rely on the cognitive process with verbal language, but can, at the same time, explore the affective process with visual arts. In fact, the aesthetics of sense memory also involves the process of the “continuous negotiation of a present with indeterminate links to the past.”[17] This process in turn would help with memory preservation for the collective of Hongkongers. Since memory is diachronic and the process of memory consolidation is socially mediated, the affective experiences transmitted via the paintings of sense memories help connect different political actors’ memories to activate the sociality of memory about the social movement.[18] Besides the sociality of memory, another important aspect of the paintings from Art-in-Action lies in the intersubjective self-writing process in the workshop.

Figure 5. Participant ten, It’s my duty, Project Catalogue: Recollections of the Actors (2023), 72–73.

Figure 6. Participant ten,  It’s my duty, Project Catalogue: Recollections of the Actors (2023), 74–75. 


Before the handover, scholar in comparative literature, Ackbar Abbas, already commented that “1997 will not be simply the moment of liberation from colonial rule,” warning that the rule of China might become “quasi-colonial.”[19] With examples from architecture and films, Abbas explained that Hong Kong culture before 1997 was mostly mis-recognised, noting the rapid urban development in this capitalist city and the political predicaments in the post-handover period. Nevertheless, Abbas did not think that Hong Kong culture itself would disappear. He proposed to pursue a distinctive Hong Kong subjectivity by “writing Hong Kong” to critically inscribe Hong Kong as a cultural space in texts and show the traces of this cultural space of “dis-appearance.”[20] Despite different understandings of Abbas’s notion of the dis-appearance, various scholars in Hong Kong Studies, including Esther Cheung, Rey Chow, and Yiu-Wai Chu, have provided similar proposals to rearticulate the Hongkonger identity via writing and rewriting the city’s history and culture.[21] Rey Chow further pinned down the term of “self-writing” to emphasise the autonomous subjectivity in Hong Kong’s postcolonial writing. As Chow observed in the 1990s, such subjectivity emerged in “a third space between the coloniser and the dominant native culture.”[22]  

The third space where Hong Kong’s self-writing often took place before 1997 and in the first decade after the handover, was situated between Britain and China, decolonisation and sinicization, and between global capitalism and cultural nationalism.[23] However, as Yiu-Wai Chu pointed out in 2018 in Betwixt and Between Hong Kong Studies: Reconsidered, such “in-betweenness” had unfortunately collapsed when China chose to keep only “One Country” in the “One Country, Two Systems” framework which was once agreed by both Britain and China in 1984’s Sino-British Joint Declaration. Without its in-between position, Hong Kong lost “a home ground in which to imagine and write its own third space.”[24] Following the deterioration of human rights in Hong Kong, Chu thought it was particularly important to understand what the consciousness of Hongkongers can no longer say in their self-writing.[25] Besides, disregard of the notion of “root” in postcolonial discourse, Chu’s essay from 2018 referred to the concept of momentum and disposition in Sinophone studies in order to reconsider Hong Kong’s self-writing in relation to its rich tradition in cultural translation and its cultural linkage with the Southeast Asian region.[26] 

As a coincidence or as an intuitive move for Hongkongers in general, the Anti-ELAB movement in 2019 echoed Chu’s call for Hong Kong to outreach while tracking its own momentum. 2019’s movement witnessed much increased efforts for Hongkongers to engage the international communities. Examples include forming stronger alliances with ethnic minorities based in Hong Kong, placing front-page ads titled “Stand with Hong Kong” over international newspapers during the G20 Summit in June 2019, overseas Hongkongers staging rallies outside of Hong Kong in support of the movement. Following this development of an international frontline, it was intuitive for the project initiators in Art-in-Action to make overseas exhibition plans from the beginning of the project, when they felt that it was not safe to set up an archive for the political actors’ artworks within Hong Kong. In other words, when the project initiators realised what their consciousness can no longer say in their home ground, they had to make the move to carve out a new third space for self-writing.

The concept of self-writing is also used in African studies to refer to how African scholars deal with the historicity of the African condition in a decolonial context.[27] Literary critic Ato Quayson analyses the concept of self-writing in Foucault’s account, which is “tied to writing the individual self in its dialogic interiority.”[28] Quayson further extends Foucault’s analysis of the writing practices of the pre-Christian ascetics to the “ontological shaping of Being in its alienated form,” and discusses how this existential alienation within the interlocutory structure in African literature helps “identify intersubjectivity with scepticism and sympathy.”[29] In the hope of breaking the structural determinations about Africa being “the sign of absolute lack,” Quayson proposes a form of alienation in Africa’s self-writing to review the past with robust scepticism in order to retrieve some, if not all, of the wiped-out history.[30] Although the African post-colonial context is very different from that of Hong Kong, Quayson’s proposed strategy to retrieve lost history and memory can shed light on Hong Kong’s self-writing for memory preservation at a time of serious political suppression and censorship. Furthering Chu’s proposal to reach out,  the approach of “dialogic interiority” can be considered as one way to help with the formation of the subjectivity of Hongkongers. I argue that the project of Art-in-Action is one example that attempts to carve out a space for Hongkongers’ self-writing about their traumatic experiences with the “dialogic interiority” using the visual art language.  

With the future exhibition plan in mind, the forty-seven participants had an imagined audience during the painting process. Indeed, thirty-four phrases brought to the workshop either have obvious dialogic features or contain subject/object pronouns, four are popular slogans chanted in demonstrations and nine are other statements or comments about the movement. Amongst the thirty-four dialogic phrases, four are speaking to the authority of HK-CCP or the pro-CCP government groups in Hong Kong.[31] Thirteen are direct speech sentences or dialogues amongst the political actors recalled from their first-hand experiences at the protests, including phrases about looking out for each other and calling out to each other to escape from the police, for example, “You safe? Yes,” and “Run!” Seventeen of these dialogic phrases are also addressed to other political actors but not from a specific moment in the protests, like “You’re not alone,” “Don’t kill yourself,” “Take good care of oneself,” “Let’s go hand in hand,” “I believe pain will not be the only thing we share someday,” “It’s my pleasure to fight alongside you,” and “Justice and you weigh the same.” These memorable phrases show the empathic feeling commonly shared among the larger collective of the political actors in Hong Kong, and “enact the political as a sphere of interconnection, in which subjectivities are forged and sustained,” which is one of the characteristics of artworks with “empathic vision” described by art theorist Jill Bennette.[32]

Besides the dialogic features, eleven phrases brought by participants are quotes from popular music, movies, political figures, and religious literature. While three of them have been broadly adopted in Hong Kong’s recent democratic movements, the rest are selected by the participants based on their personal association. It is important to note the diverse sources of the quotes, such as, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light goes on” from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, “History has its eyes on you” from Hamilton: An American Musical, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves'' from Matthew 10:16 of the Bible,Once in a lifetime, you come to see the Sun” from a poem by Chinese poet Hai Zi, “Anything but death is just an abrasion” from the Chokaku-ji Temple in Japan and “We couldn’t return to normality, because normality itself was the problem” from 2019’s large-scale protests in Chile. As Focualt suggested, recollecting what one has heard or read previously in the process of self-writing helps with the shaping of oneself.[33] The phrases collected in Art-in-Action demonstrate that the participants’ self-writing is not only connected with the Anti-ELAB movement, but also is associated with the cultures from other regions. This may partly be because of the stronger international frontline developed in the movement. Meanwhile, the potential exhibition of the paintings from Art-in-Action enhanced the participants’ self-writing process by implying an imagined audience from the international community which does not situate at the “in-betweenness” of Britain and China. This echoes the art practices with the “empathic vision” suggested by Benette. Such practices attempt to “address the fluid boundary between ‘insides’ and ‘outsides,’ manifesting trauma not simply as an interior condition but as a transformative process that impacts on the world as much as on bodies.”[34] In the following, I will further argue the significance of embracing such fluidity, by providing the current social context of Hong Kong culture, which is facing the double-impossibilities in the post-British-colonial era.


The expression of Hongkongers’ cultural identity was a great concern for many artists in Hong Kong prior to the 1997 handover.[35] However, in 2004, as art historian David Clarke observed, “with the handover now seven years behind us, it [had] become very unfashionable to talk about Hong Kong cultural identity,” even for art practitioners.[36] Clarke did not think such a phenomenon suggested that the search for Hong Kong identity is no longer important for the general public or artists in Hong Kong. Instead, he interpreted this phenomenon as people adopting more direct political actions to express the local identity, such as the demonstration on 1 July 2003 with half a million Hongkongers taking to the streets to object to the imminent national security legislation.[37] Three years after the 2003 demonstration, the preservation movement of Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier, which was initiated by a group of artists, evoked another round of critical discussions among the Hong Kong public about its local identity, in relation to heritage protection and democratic city-planning.[38] The anti-rail protest of  2009, which advocated the protection of Choi Yuen Village in the rural district of Hong Kong from the development of the high-speed-railway to connect Hong Kong with China, involved even more young people and cultural practitioners who re-articulated Hongkongers’ identity in relation to the farming culture and nature, signalling a shift away from the capitalistic model endorsed by most Hongkongers ever since the British colonial era.[39]  

The stronger urge for Hongkongers’ identity also appeared in the major slogans used in two recent large-scale democratic movements in 2014 and 2019. A significant example from 2014’s Umbrella Movement is the slogan of “I want real universal suffrage.”[40] I previously argued in another essay that the usage of the clear subject of “I” reveals the importance of autonomy for the protesters in the movement.[41] The title of the Anti-ELAB movement in 2019 was acknowledged in Cantonese as “反送中” which literally translates to “to object to be delivered to China” and demonstrates a strong demand to maintain the distinction between Hong Kong and China. Meanwhile, two major slogans chanted in 2019—“Liberate Hong Kong; Revolution of Our times” and “Go Hongkongers!”—highlighted the urge for autonomy and the protesters’ strong subjectivity respectively.[42] In the past few years, different Hong Kong researchers in cultural studies, social studies and political science have reviewed the remarkable development of Hongkongers’ collective identity in the Anti-ELAB movement.[43] Cultural studies scholar, Iam-Chong Ip, explains in Hong Kong’s New Identity Politics: Longing for the Local in the Shadow of China, published one year after the Anti-ELAB movement, how the imagined "community of fate” emerged among protesters during the affective process of the social movement, “as a result of crisis, common danger, and a deep horizontal expectations.”[44] Ip points out slogans like “Go Hongkongers!” showed “a strong sense of fraternity and envision[ed] a collectivity on the move.”[45]  

However, without a democratic mechanism responding to the public’s demands, the destined result of gaining a stronger collective identity was more suppression by the authority: i.e. the Hong Kong Government ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China (HK-CCP Government). At the protest sites of 2019’s movements, many participants faced physical confrontations with the police and were seriously injured.[46] Those who were not at the frontlines of the protests but supported the movement in different ways also experienced the traumatic feeling of oppression. Studies of Hongkongers’ mental health in 2019 showed: 

a prevalence of 11.2% for depression and 12.8% for probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the heights of the movement in late 2019, compared to just 1.9% for depression before the 2014 Umbrella Movement (UM) and 4.9% for probable PTSD shortly after the UM.[47]

Another report from 2021 indicated that there was “a prevalence of 9.1% for suicidal ideation.”[48] The street protest quieted down as the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, but the political situation continues to deteriorate, especially after National Security Law (NSL) was imposed to Hong Kong in July 2020 without any local legislation process, and after the HK-CCP government reactivated the sedition law from the British colonial era.[49] Collectively facing the “double impossibilities,” Hongkongers are practising identity politics without possible recognition in their own realm.[50] Although, compared with other former colonies, Hong Kong’s post-colonial situation is unique, there exist references across cultures and times about the psychological condition of political actors in the aftermath of quiet-down social movements. In Art-in-Action, A brought to the workshop the empathic reading of Sister Corita Kent’s art prints to foster another layer of the sociality of sense memory, as well as the space for intersubjective self-writing.

As previously mentioned, the workshop space was mainly white and empty in order to eliminate possible influences in the painting process. However, it did not matter if the participants spilled the paint on the floor or the wall. The floor were covered by paper. Participants were advised to wear clothes that they did not mind getting dirty. Each time, before a new session began, the team would clean up and, if necessary, even re-painted the wall white. In order to encourage visual expression, A displayed three silkscreen prints by Sister Corita Kent from 1982 on one of the walls in the studio. The three works—May The Sun Shine on You Sweetly (Sun) (Fig. 7),” May The Winds Blow Sweetly (Winds) (Fig. 8) and May The Trees Be Sweet To You (Trees) (Fig. 9)—depict natural landscapes with organic shapes and patches in pale colours in a relatively abstract style. A collected these prints some years prior at the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles. She remembers feeling peaceful and calm, and a sense of lively energy when she first encountered these prints. A short biography of Corita Kent was written by A with a pencil on the wall space next to the prints in the workshop. The first paragraph introduced Corita’s Catholic background, her role as an art teacher and an activist for social justice. The second paragraph explained the conflicting approaches in religious practices between Corita and other members of clergy at the Catholic community of Immaculate Heart of Mary, and pointed out Corita was not afraid to express what she believed in. The last paragraph says: 

These three prints I collected were the last pieces in Corita’s life, of which the style has changed substantially. The subtle and calming colour is different from the bright ones in her previous artworks, adding a sense of life and love to these prints, which gives out energy to viewers.[51]

Figure 7. Corita Kent, May The Sun Shine on You Sweetly, 1982, screen print, 40.6 x 50.5 cm. (photograph, interviewee A, Hong Kong, 2020)

Figure 8. Corita Kent, May The Winds Blow Sweetly, 1982, screen print, 40.6 x 50.5 cm. (photograph, interviewee A, Hong Kong, 2020)

Figure 9. Corita Kent, May The Trees Be Sweet To You, 1982, screen print, 40.6 x 50.5 cm. (photograph, interviewee A, Hong Kong, 2020)

Many of Corota’s earlier works, made at Immaculate Heart College where she taught, were colourful prints, with text messages, collages of photographs and images from magazines. Art historians and critics usually focus on her earlier works and characterise them as Pop Art. Commenting on Kent’s works after she left the College, art historian Michael Duncan writes, “she shifted away from the direct social engagement of the Pop work and into quieter, more introspective statements . . . In a broad sense, her 1969 departure from Los Angeles and the ensuing shift in her work reflects the collapse of sixties’ idealism that began with the Kennedy and King assassinations.”[52] Despite the pessimistic social circumstances, Corita responded with optimism when asked, in a television interview, whether her artworks full of warm colours actually came out of unresolved pain. In the interview from 1982, the year when she made the three prints displayed in the Art-in-Action workshop, Corita said, “I think everybody has this kind of pain . . . Some people make beautiful things out of it. I’ve been lately using the feeling, and using the symbolism of the flower growing out of the dark earth . . . You know, the spring coming out of the winter.”[53] Corita did not deny that there was pain after the fall of the sixties’ idealism, but anticipated hope in her works. It is, in fact, common to have enormous frustration in the aftermath of political movements, as Ip showed in his case studies of the identity politics of young Hong Kong activists who embraced different degrees of nativism. Ip describes the moment between the activist temporality and the normalised present as “the period of dead time characteristic of loneliness, apathy, slowness, repression, and dying.”[54] Despite the different social contexts, depression and even a sense of dying would appear after political agitations and direct political actions, which is the same for the activists in the civil right movements in the late 1960s, as well as for those in Hong Kong’s current democratic movement. For Hong Kong’s situation, Ip used Staurt Hall’s term to describe the “unresolved pain” experienced by Hongkongers as the “becoming” of identity heading toward an alien and unimaginable future.[55]  

Yet, while the participants were facing the “deadliness” as Ip described, Corita’s art encouraged one to hold onto hope and allow such to grow out of the dark earth. At the bottom of each of the three prints displayed in the workshop there is a short phrase written lightly with pencil by Corita. They all begin with the word “may,” implying the making of a wish. While the title of May The Winds Blow Sweetly does not contain an object pronoun, Corita chose to speak to the viewer directly in the titles of May The Sun Shine on You Sweetly and May The Trees Be Sweet To You. She encouraged the viewer to be receptive to the natural forces and, at the same time, to actively experience these forces humanly. The compositions of the prints are quite simple. Both Sun and Trees have shapes in warm colours standing out: a patch of pale yellow colour appearing above the focal point in the background in Sun, and a wide tree crown in soft pink at the centre of Trees. Comparatively, Sun and Trees evokes a more positive and happier feeling. With an overall greyish colour tone, Winds does not have an obvious subject matter, composed mainly by elongated shapes in light grey and blue, and a few small blocks in muddy brown at the left bottom corner. The feeling Winds brings about is more gloomy. Nonetheless, Corita still made a wish in the print’s title in hope that the winds act “sweetly.” With mainly simple organic shapes in a few different shades of uneven colours, the three prints have a painterly quality that embraces the directness of artistic expression. I argue that such directness in Corita’s art functioned as a warm invitation for the political actors in this workshop to express their unresolved emotion through artistic practices.

However, it must be noted that there was no extensive discussion nor teaching about Corita’s art in the workshop. A did not spend much time introducing Corita’s works, and no participants raised any questions about the prints neither. The project catalogue did not mention the display of Corita’s print, as this did not seem to be influential in the process of Art-in-Action at the time of editing. Nonetheless, reviewing the paintings in the project catalogue, one can see that Corita’s prints were an important visual reference for the participants, not in a way to imitate Corita’s artistic style, but by encouraging the participants to paint what they felt or remembered in a very straightforward manner. Out of the forty-seven series of paintings, twenty-nine pieces are more abstract, composed of shapes and strokes that are non-representational. Most of the abstract ones explore the feelings of the participants, such as hope, togetherness, loneliness, heat, sadness, guilt, fear and suppression. For example, in Run! We’re overpowered! (Figs. 10 and 11, 2023), participant twenty-nine (29) painted the sense memory from the moment when 29 was seriously affected by tear gas bombs. The paintings in this series are full of fuzzy black and grey strokes, with some yellow and pink shapes amid. A few other abstract paintings are also about the atmosphere the participants experienced at the protest sites, such as fire and smoke shown as overwhelming strokes in red or black in Don’t let them in and You’ve taught me that peaceful demonstrations are useless. Eighteen series of paintings by the other participants appear to be more figurative, but still mainly rely on simple shapes to directly express experiences recalled from the movement. For example, Free Hong Kong by participant five (5) depicted a memory of a group of activists painted as black silhouettes holding up a large flag and shields, in front of the bright red and dark grey background. In the last painting of this series, the whole atmosphere became so much darker that one can barely see the figures. The only clear elements remaining are the white dots at the right top corner that was widely used to represent the major slogan of “Liberate Hong Kong; Revolution of Our times” that was censored in 2020.[56] Simply put, all the paintings from Art-in-Action are about directly expressing what the participants felt and remembered from the Anti-ELAB movement, which coincides with the emotional directness in Corita’s art prints.  

The “empathic connectivity” that occurred between Corita’s art and the Art-in-Action workshop was, first of all, enabled by A’s affective response to Corita’s art. Then, A’s artistic instinct linked Corita’s prints from the 1980s with the affective experiences facilitated in the workshop. Built upon similar consequences after certain activist temporalities in diverse parts of the world, there exists an interconnection between Corita Kent’s art and the political actors’ paintings.[57] On the other hand, the paintings from Art-in-Action also connect the participants with the larger Hongkonger collective with care and sympathy. Sense memories are triggered via the paintings and the texts to engage the wider collective of Hongkongers. Adrian Parr, when discussing memorial culture, argues that the reason to return to the repressed past is not just to commemorate but to create the present and future in a different way.[58] This explains why the futuristic approach of exhibition-making in Art-in-Action makes it more than an art-as-therapy workshop. This is a relational art project with different layers of connectivities. The “political actors” were not only invited to the workshop to heal or to preserve their memories, but also to speak to the overseas interlocutors in the future. Such global interconnection is particularly important for Hong Kong’s self-writing in the decolonial context. 

Figure 10. Participant twenty-nine, Run! We’re overpowered!, Project Catalogue: Recollections of the Actors (2023),  198–199.

Figure 11. Participant twenty-nine, Run! We’re overpowered!, Project Catalogue: Recollections of the Actors (2023), 200–201.


In order to break the structural determinations of the “double impossibility,” Hongkongers ought to relate to a multitude of intersubjectivity (in this case an overseas audience) in order to establish a decolonial identity beyond the in-betweenness of Britain and China.  Facing the unresolved question of Hongkongers’ cultural identity, Ip Iam-Chong, in the end of Hong Kong’s New Identity Politics, writes: 

What we lack is an image of what our shared way of life might be. An alternative vision, speaking to, rather than fully endorsing or rejecting, the current affective assemblage of enunciations that predominates the political scene, remains to be created.[59]

Amongst many different strategies to create this alternative vision, one of the ways I propose is to reference the model developed in Art in Action for Political Actors, in terms of revisiting the sense memories of Hongkongers from the major social events and movements where the collective bonding was once developed. It is because “the affective assemblage of enunciations” being constituted can help carve a new space for Hong Kong’s self-writing that unfolds the multiple possibilities of Hongkongers’ intersubjectivities.  Another important aspect of Art-in-Action lies in art-as-therapy. Indeed, alternative visions have been developed throughout different iterations of the paintings for some political actors over their personal levels. The question next is if this art-as-therapy-painting-exercise can lead the collective of Hongkongers even further. 

On the other hand, in order to avoid being trapped in the gap of in-betweeness discussed, it is also crucial for the Hongkongers to develop the interconnectedness with the global communities. As I am wrapping up the discussion of this case study, I am installing one of the seven sets of paintings by the forty-seven political actors for the group exhibition titled, Human Migration – Homo Migratio, in Jeju Island, South Korea. This exhibition is about a story of migration and survival, organised by Jeju Museum of Art (JoMA) across several venues of Jeju’s cultural institutions.  The forty-seven paintings by the political actors are presented together with the project catalogues in both English and traditional Chinese, as the migrated memories from Hong Kong at the special exhibition hall of Jeju International Peace Center (Figs. 12 and 13, 2023). The Peace Center also has permanent exhibitions about Jeju’s history and the major Jeju uprising against the authoritarian government in 1948, and offers many guided tours for school students. It is hoped that another layer of interconnectivity can be achieved, by reaching the audience at Jeju Island through sharing the stories of collective trauma across cultures and times.

Figure 12. Clara Cheung, “An installation shot of the 47 paintings from Art-in-Action by Political Actors in the Human Migration - Homo Migratio art exhibition,” photograph, Jeju International Peace Center, Jeju Island, South Korea, 2023.

While the birth of this project relied on the unique atmosphere in the Hong Kong society, it provides an alternative model for Hong Kong’s self-writing. Previous scholarly literatures about Hong Kong’s self-writing focus on works produced by professionals in the arts and popular culture, but pay less attention to voices by individuals who do not practise in the cultural fields. Art-in-Action demonstrates the formation of a collaborative platform for a group of Hongkongers to intimately share their “affective assemblage of enunciations” by painting. In the past two years, different Hongkongers have contributed to use art to help cope with their traumatic experiences and memories. Some Hongkongers in exile even proactively exhibit their works in overseas exhibitions.[60] It is important to well-document these artworks and exhibitions, so that more studies can be conducted to further analyse Hongkongers’ self-writing via the visual art language and to understand how the visual arts help the collective to preserve certain memories and experiences that are difficult to be expressed verbally. To conclude, I would like to emphasise that, like Art in Action for Political Actors which is an ongoing project, the project to “paint” Hong Kong in the gap between sense memory and collective memory is yet to be finished.

Figure 13. Clara Cheung, “An installation shot of the 47 paintings from Art-in-Action by Political Actors in the Human Migration - Homo Migratio art exhibition,” photograph, Jeju International Peace Center, Jeju Island, South Korea, 2023.

Clara Cheung is a PhD candidate in the History of Art department at the University of York. The working title of her doctoral thesis is “To decolonise through art-history writing: a comparative study of the articulations of Hong Kong, Malaysian and Singaporean Art over international art exhibitions from the 1960s to 1970s.”


Article Information
Clara Cheung, “Painting Hong Kong in the Gap of Sense Memory and Collective Memory,” Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 3247. DOI: 10.15124/yao-w87w-pp91