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Malaysian 'painter without a brush' sees a better future

Art and politics of 'Red' Hong Yi highlight climate change, race and ethnic heritage

Malaysian artist Hong Yi -- better known as "Red" -- sits in front of her artwork featuring 50,000 matchsticks that she set fire to for Time magazine in April. (Photo by Annice Lyn and Jessie Lyee)

KUALA LUMPUR -- For the Malaysian artist Hong Yi, better known as "Red," seeing two weeks of painstaking work go up in flames in less than 2 minutes was not a bad thing. Her latest artwork, created by setting fire to 50,000 green-tipped matchsticks representing trees inserted into a 3-meter-wide world map, became a powerful cover for an issue of Time magazine dedicated to the effects of climate change.

"Time [magazine] decided to revisit the concept of the piece 'Burn' [which] I realized with street artist Kenji Chai," says Red, who in 2019 used matchsticks to create charred trees surrounding an image of an orangutan mother and her offspring. "Their vision was to express how the world should come together to tackle climate change with the same urgency we've had in tackling the [COVID-19] pandemic," she says.

Red, who was born in Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysian Borneo, was educated in Australia and trained as an architect in Shanghai. She got her big break as an artist in 2012, when her portrait of the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming -- drawn using a basketball dipped in red paint -- went viral, introducing her unique style to the world.

Since 2014, Red has traveled and worked as an artist full-time, mostly hopping between bases in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, and creating unconventional artworks utilizing everyday objects.

Among Red's best-known pieces is a mural of the Merlion -- the mythical creature with a lion's head and a fish body that represents Singapore -- created by gluing, layering and charring 15,000 bamboo chopsticks with fire. Red's portrait of a man making teh tarik (Malaysian milk tea) was realized using 20,000 stained tea bags suspended from a wooden frame featuring wire mesh cutouts.

Top: Red inspects her matchstick world map before setting it ablaze. Bottom: She says the artwork, which was featured on the cover of Time, was intended to communicate the urgency and interconnectedness of climate change issues across the globe. (Photos by Annice Lyn and Jessie Lyee)

Another stunning artwork, "Kaleidoscope," exhibited earlier this year at The Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur, comprised seven mirrored panels made from 24,000 pieces of used aluminum coffee capsules. "I'm experimenting with mud and soil now; silhouettes and social issues," Red says. "Specifically, I want to speak about the issues of climate change, race, and also about my heritage as a Chinese Malaysian."

The artist says she learned an "invaluable lesson on her heritage" while living and working in Shanghai, where she became fascinated by the objects she could source and purchase at competitive prices. "I would go to markets and be able to buy huge volumes of sunflower seeds, socks, hairpins and paper cups for a fraction of the price I'd be paying in Australia or Malaysia," she says.

This fascination prompted Red to visit Yiwu, China's wholesale capital, where she observed how manufacturing and supplying worked. "I created artworks with objects in response to the manufacturing prowess of China. I could source objects in abundance, and I could afford them at that point in time," she says.

Red with three works from her "Future Relics" series, which she describes as a "series of 15 pieces that examines the role of a (Southeast) Asian woman in the 21st century, as portrayed on traditional Chinese vases." In Chinese, the word for vase is also a derogatory term for an attractive woman without any substance. (Photo by George Yong)

Her next step was using some of those cheap materials to create portraits of Chinese personalities, "because I felt there were a lot of misconceptions of China, tainted by media from the West, and my perceptions on China and the Chinese people were challenged when I lived there," says Red.

Among other works, Red created a portrait of the Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan using more than 60,000 disposable bamboo chopsticks to celebrate the actor's 60th birthday. An homage to the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei was realized by arranging 20,000 sunflower seeds on canvas.

The coronavirus pandemic took a toll on the life of jet-setting Red who, prior to COVID-19, mostly spent her time outside her native Malaysia because her "clients came from all over the place, and if it piqued my interest, I'd fly there."

One of Red's 15 "Future Relics," created using eggshells. (Photo by George Yong)

In the beginning, COVID-19 lockdowns hampered Red's creativity: She says she went through a period of depression and needed online therapy because she was very anxious about the future. "I reminded myself that this was temporary, and that as an artist it was important to express and record what was happening around me."

This aspiration led to an Instagram series, "#iamnotavirus," intended as her response to Western anti-Asian sentiment triggered by the pandemic, in which Red portrayed victims of assaults and people who spoke out about the issue. Her next project, "#seedsofhope," presented 10 portraits of people she admired, realized with random seeds sourced from her pantry while locked down at home. Among them was Dr. Helen Chu, a Seattle-based infectious disease expert who started coronavirus community testing in the U.S. state of Washington in January 2020 without government approval.

"In hindsight, although it's been challenging, the pandemic has helped my growth as an artist because it has rooted me to one spot," says Red, who moved to Kuala Lumpur in July 2020 after isolating with her family in Kota Kinabalu. She has since been accepting commissions and building a team that will grow to nine members by July 2021.

Red's powerful last piece from her "#iamnotavirus" series. Made on woven bamboo, it represents the victims of violence against Asians in the West triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Danielle Soong)

However, working in Malaysia may prove increasingly challenging for Red because of a clampdown on freedom of expression. In April, graphic artist and activist Fahmi Reza, who came to prominence in 2015 through a clown caricature of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, was detained by police because of a music playlist with songs including "Jealousy" and "God Save the Queen," by the British groups Queen and the Sex Pistols, respectively, which he uploaded to the music streaming site Spotify.

The playlist was an ironic response to a response ("Are you jealous?") from Malaysia's Queen Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah to an Instagram user who asked about alleged privileged royal access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Fahmi was questioned again by police on May 6 about two caricatures, including one of the Malaysian health minister depicted as a vampire. Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a political cartoonist known as Zunar, was also questioned about a caricature of a state minister published in January.

A detail of a work from Red's "#iamnotavirus" series. (Photo by Danielle Soong)

"I respect Fahmi's art career and think it is important for the growth of the art scene here to be able to freely speak out on issues," Red says, adding, "I want to create pieces that express what I want to do and what I want to say as an artist -- and this includes social and political issues."

During Malaysian parliamentary elections in 2018, Red created a piece titled "Hope" with a silhouette of a person holding a flag with flower petals bursting around him. "I created the piece so the public could use it anywhere they wanted to, to express their hope for the country," she says. Many Malaysians used Red's artwork as profile photographs on social media, and it also appeared on electronic billboards.

"I do want to create more works like these," says Red." They remind me of why I want to be an artist: To work on pieces that can influence and connect with people."

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