The Malaysian artist on how she’s staying active and creative, her #seedsofhope art series and what’s in her #traveltomorrow plans
Sabah-born Hong Yi, who also goes by the moniker of Red, might just be one of the most influential voices in Asia. It’s no wonder: visit her Instagram page and you’ll see how she’s challenging the paradigms of art with unusual and everyday materials, from tea bags to eggshells. Hong also uses her art to speak to issues that resonate with her audience.
Often called “the artist who paints without a paintbrush”, Hong shot to fame in 2012 when a video of her using a basketball and paint to create a portrait of retired NBA star Yao Ming went viral. She ended up leaving her job as an architect to pursue art full-time in 2014, and has been exhibiting all over the world ever since. Recently, she’s been “self-isolating” in her hometown of Kota Kinabalu with her family. We catch up with her to find out what she’s been up to, and where she’d like to go once it’s safe to travel again.
What films, books and activities have kept you occupied throughout the movement control order (MCO)? Any newfound hobbies?
I read a lot before the lockdown, but, somehow, I couldn’t get into that frame of mind when MCO took over. I’ve been working out a lot, though – first time in my life that I’ve actually diligently followed workout programmes! I use the Nike Training Club app and Chloe Ting’s programmes – both are free. I also haven’t watched any movies or shows on Netflix yet. I’ve been listening to NPR’s How I Built This podcast, and recent episodes have featured entrepreneurs navigating this virus season.
I have been producing a few series of artworks, and sharpening my cooking skills. Perhaps I’ve chosen to do more hands-on work because I was afraid of being sedentary and unproductive during MCO. Everyone’s reacting to this season differently, though, and that’s OK.
What would best sum up your lockdown persona? A) Instagram chef; B) Zoom pub quiz host; C) supermarket stockpiler; D) the TikToker; or E) the home workout buff?
A mixture of A and E, haha! You can see both on my Instagram highlights. I haven’t ventured into TikTok yet!
What did you miss doing most during the MCO? And what’s the first thing on your list of activities once it’s fully lifted?
I miss my friends and being able to deliver my projects. It’s also been hard to order stuff online since supply chains are disrupted. I’ve been accepted to two artist residencies – one in Shanghai and the other in Los Angeles. So, when this is all really over, I’m going to get started on one of them!
We noticed your incredible #seedsofhope series on Instagram – you’ve been making portraits of people worthy of our admiration during this pandemic out of the seeds in your pantry. Did #seedsofhope have the impact you had intended for it?
I started #seedsofhope right after #iamnotavirus because as much as there are worrying things happening in the world, there are people who are doing incredible work to help others. I wanted the series to encourage and uplift people, and I hope that it’s inspired that.
Fighting racism and discrimination are important undercurrents in your work. Do you think artists have a responsibility to convey certain messages to their audiences?
I think artists should have the freedom to choose what they want to highlight or focus on. Some want to purely focus on aesthetics. Some want to focus on certain themes or subjects that they’ve been working on throughout their careers. It’s become even more evident to me that I want to focus on portraits that express my Asian heritage, and themes that focus on gender and race, especially after all we’ve seen during this quarantine period.
I must also note, though, that as humans, I believe we should voice out things that matter to us – it does not matter if we are artists or scientists or bankers. Doing nothing is political.
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4th of 10 portraits in my series, #seedsofhope: Dr Helen Chu, a Seattle-based infectious-disease expert who defied the US federal government’s attempts to block her from doing the first community tests in Washington state in January. According to @nytimes, a Seattle research group, Seattle Flu Study, was collecting nasal swabs from residents, and Washington confirmed its first positive coronavirus case then, which prompted Dr. Helen Chu to ask for federal and state officials for permission to repurpose the tests in order to monitor the spread of the virus. The officials rejected the idea on public health and private grounds. In late February, Dr. Chu began testing for the virus without government approval. “It must have been here this entire time. It’s just everywhere already.” Without Dr. Chu, the situation would have been a lot worse. . #seedsofhope is a series featuring 10 people rendered in seeds from my pantry. They are people who have brought hope and inspiration during this time. This piece was made of coriander seeds.
You’re known for working with unusual textures and materials; is there a material you’d really like to work with but haven’t been able to?
I’m focusing on bamboo and using fire and soot to create images now. I’m hoping to focus on limited materials this year, so I’ll be able to sharpen my technique and skills with them.
What are some of your favourite places in Malaysia and why?
Sabah and Penang. The former for its nature and great outdoors, the latter for its quirky streets and art culture.
What’s next on your travel bucket list, both in Malaysia and abroad?
So many places! I’ve always wanted to travel to India and China. Though I’ve visited and even lived in China before, I find the country endlessly fascinating. There’s so much left to discover. Within Malaysia? Maybe Kuching because I hear the art scene there has been pretty impressive lately!
What kind of society do you hope to see emerge from this global health crisis?
I hope to see a kinder, more understanding, more caring, more united, more loving society.