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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.

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