Cover Red Hong Yi (Photo: Khairul Imran/Tatler Malaysia)

Whether it’s art for art’s sake or one with a cause, Red Hong Yi and her team are pushing against the conventional confinements of contemporary art

“My late grand-uncle was an oil painter who used to paint posters for the Chinese Communist Revolution,” Red Hong Yi recalls, visibly wistful as she peers over the phone while I scroll through her Instagram story highlights. “He was initially trained and influenced by European paintings, and had even done some of his landscape paintings before most of his original work was destroyed during the revolution.

“You see, the artists had to paint a very specific style,” Red continues. “It was all about using vibrant colours and drawing healthy-looking people—they weren’t allowed to do it their way, nor were they allowed to truly express themselves.”

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The whole ordeal, the Sabah-born artist adds, scarred her grand-uncle so much that he never picked up his brush again, but that never stopped him from helping his grandniece.

“Whenever I brought my work over, he’d give me comments like ‘Oh, your portraits are good, but you’re not getting the shading of the mouth right. You need to remember that the teeth have curvature!’” she laughs. “Which is why I always ask my subjects to close their mouths whenever I draw portraits now—I get nervous whenever I have to draw teeth.”

In order for an artist to have a unique voice, one simply had to be themselves and not try to be like anyone else

Referring to him as one of her biggest mentors, Red remembers a pivotal moment in 2019 (the last she ever saw of him before his passing in 2020), when her grand-uncle had immediately recognised her charred weave piece before she even announced it as such. “He’s always told me that in order for an artist to have a unique voice, one simply had to be themselves and not try to be like anyone else.”

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And evidently, she’s taken his advice to heart; from getting her masters in architecture in Melbourne to becoming a full-time architect in Shanghai, Red never gave up her passion for art. Piecing together larger-than-life installations of China’s influential figures such as the sunflower seed portrait of contemporary artist Ai Weiwei to using basketballs to illustrate basketball player Yao Ming in 2012, the artist took the world by storm and was dubbed ‘the artist who paints without a paintbrush’ by many.

“It’s been quite a ride really,” Red muses thoughtfully. “Over the nine years I’ve been in this industry, I think I’ve gone through seasons where I’ve kept to similar aesthetics, but it’s always been imperative that my work be rooted to my heritage and become a reflection of my current surroundings. I’m now more focused on the message behind the piece, of tackling social issues and conveying how I feel about certain events. At the end of the day, I want my art to talk to people and be more than just a pretty image that’s in it for the click bait.”

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It’s always been imperative that my work be rooted to my heritage and become a reflection of my current surroundings. I’m now more focused on the message behind the piece, of tackling social issues and conveying how I feel about certain events.

Having taken to social media long before the digital storm descended in 2020, Red notes that it has allowed for artists the freedom to further explore their craft, and more importantly, gain exposure; which is something a traditional gallery model doesn’t necessarily offer. But as the gallery model changes, so does the approach of an artist when it comes to getting their work out there—before, it was the worry of whether or not they would be represented by a gallery; now, it was whether or not their work had sufficient reach online.

“I used to be in a place where I was so fixated on the number of my followers,” she says. “At times when I wasn’t careful, that obsession diluted the quality of my work, and it transformed my artwork into the ‘next click bait thing’, which admittedly lacked quality and wasn’t well-researched or well-thought-out. But after I quit being an architect, the main challenge was to get commissioned projects when I first started out—I needed clients to approach me because I had to stay afloat for the next project. Today, while I’m lucky enough to have a team behind my back, the challenge now is for me to really step it up, to focus on my own craft and not have to worry about whether or not I should take on a commercial piece.”

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In April, Red and her six-person team made headlines as her work was featured on Time magazine’s Climate Is Everything cover. After two weeks of putting together a geographical map that comprised 50,000 green-tipped matchsticks, the artist and her team made the deadline, only to have their work burned down in just two minutes by their own hands. Both at once a performance art and an ominous premonition of sorts, Red is quoted in her interview with Time, saying: “The whole idea behind (the building and burning of the piece) was that while it takes a long time to build something up, it can be destroyed really quickly too.”

Reminiscent of her collaboration in 2019 with fellow Sabahan graffiti artist Kenji Chai as well as director Chong Kern Wei of Arts In Motion (who was also involved with the filming of Time magazine’s climate crisis cover), the film, Burn, was another sobering reminder of the devastation wrought if climate change was left unchecked. In the film, setting the trees that surround a beautifully intricate illustration of a mother orangutan and her baby alight, the final scene is haunting as Charlie Chaplin recites his final speech in The Great Dictator: “And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.”

Reminded of her time under lockdown, to which Red describes as a ‘flight or fight’ situation, the artist was struck by an urgent need to “change and evolve” right away, so that even if she was grounded in Malaysia and confined within her own room, she was going to change and create regardless.

“We have the internet,” Red declares. “And that’s the most powerful tool we have to break borders right now. I contacted a couple of freelancers while under lockdown and worked with them on a couple of projects; ‘I Am Not A Virus’ being one of them.

“It was a reaction to what was happening around the globe. Because we’re living in such a unique time, it’s basically a significant event that may be one for the books for the generations to come. All sorts of mediums, including art, will have recorded this so we can talk about it with future generations. And that’s the beauty of art, right? I want to break the moulds of art, so to speak, that art doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be anything really as it’s subjective.”

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