Red Hongyi’s artworks are admired for its aesthetic beauty and bold messages

MALAYSIAN-BORN international contemporary artist Red Hongyi conveys social messages through her artworks. Last May, she created #SeedsOfHope – a series of portraits using seeds to honour people who have brought hope, and “I am not a Virus” that highlights racism against the Asian community during the pandemic.

Known as an artist who paints without a paintbrush, she pushes the boundaries by experimenting with materials one would never have thought of using or incorporating in an artwork, while challenging herself to explore the different types of art – from painting to photography to food art.

Eggshells, chopsticks, food from the pantry and even using her body as a brush, nothing has stopped Hongyi’s creativity in exploring and inventing masterpieces.

“Anything can be turned into art. I have learned to look at the ordinary with fresh eyes and appreciate life in all its beauty and flaws,” said Hongyi, whose innovative pieces were exhibited at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and commissioned by Jackie Chan.

“I want to use my art to help make the world a better place, even if it means taking small, baby steps,” she said.

As an architect turned artist, how did your journey into art begin?

I always had an interest in art but while I was growing up, I was told that it would be difficult to make it a full-time career. I was studious, and my parents thought architecture would be a great balance. That way, I could still flex my creative muscles and also get a stable job when I graduate!

My first job after university was at an architectural firm in Shanghai. I was inspired by the new environment and the manufacturing power of the country. I could also afford to buy materials for my art projects because I had a salary and things were much cheaper in China. On weekends, I dabbled in art. I also felt that China was misunderstood, and what is portrayed in the media outside China was different from what was going on in the country. I began creating portraits of Chinese personalities who were featured in the media. That was how my journey began.

Why do you prefer not to use a brush?

I wanted to challenge myself to think and express myself differently. I believe that limitations push creativity. I gave myself the limitation of not using a brush. Do you know writers are often asked what kind of pens they use? The power is not in the pen but how the writer expresses himself with words. I believe the same goes for art.

What is the purpose of “I am Not a Virus”, that was created during the movement control order?

I was suppose to move to the United States last year. When I mentioned it to friends in Los Angeles, they said: “Careful. It’s tricky being an Asian now.” That was when I started reading articles about anti-Asian racism related to the coronavirus. It is worrying and sad, and it definitely does not help when world leaders use racial slurs against certain people, especially when the world is in a panic and is uncertain about the virus situation. This just divides and creates more fear.

I did not coin the title “I am Not a Virus”. It is a hashtag that started in France, with a Twitter hashtag #Jenesuispasunvirus, to push back against racist incidents as a result of the coronavirus. Asians have been punched in the face, spat on, yelled at and turned away based on their ethnicity. In my series, I highlight these stories – from a Singaporean student who was punched in the United Kingdom to a two-year-old Asian-American girl, who was stabbed in Texas. I want to believe that most people are kind and understanding, and there are only minor incidences of racism. I have an international following and thought I could use my platform to speak out against this.

Tell us about your project using okra and lotus seeds.

I have been wanting to use these materials for a while, and to explore methods that have been overlooked. We were taught about stamping techniques in school, and I wanted to revisit it as an adult and give it a different flair. These are now displayed at a Japanese restaurant called Hoshun.

You turned yourself into an object of art. Why?

I was going through emotional turmoil when the MCO hit. This piece is personal to me, and I wanted it to convey my feelings. So, I used myself as a brush. It depicts me approaching the canvas with red paint, which symbolises blood. I leave the canvas with two imprints of humans looking like they are wrestling with each other.

What is your favourite artwork?

In Conversation, the piece on which I used myself as a brush.