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Red Hong Yi on using the unconventional art form to tap into her roots

Red Hong Yi is our September digital cover star. A creator who constantly breaks boundaries, we get “the artist who paints without a paintbrush” to share what it means to work with a different set of tools, as well as what the future of art looks like. 

If you were among the millions of people who watched the YouTube video (with the same awestruck expression I remember wearing) of a young artist painting a portrait of Yao Ming with just a single basketball ten years ago, then you would have known that Red Hong Yi’s career was bound to grow from there. “Paint? With a basketball?” Red asks innocently in the video, before she goes on to create a mind-blowing masterpiece.

Back in 2012, gaining a million views on YouTube was a big deal. With the current era full of ‘clout-chasing’ content, revisiting Red’s video — filmed in time-lapse and featuring nothing but a large canvas, a bowl of red paint and a basketball — is a nostalgic callback to the authentic, ‘old-school YouTube’ feel. Red’s art form is one that commands your attention. You feel mesmerised just watching her work as you wait for her art to manifest. The performance aspect is there in her creative process as it is in the presentation.

“Nowadays, I make use of digital technology to help me create pieces that are otherwise rendered using physical art materials,” explains Red. There’s something refreshing about her technique that traverses across mediums, positioning Red as an artist with remarkable versatility. “For example, almost all the installation artworks I create are more or less grounded in architectural principles. There’s a lot of planning and precise calculation that happens behind the scenes… not to mention manipulating images on computer programs and software. That helps me visualise and create the final expression of the physical piece.” 

A portrait of the artist as a young Chinese woman

Despite the modern touch that her art requires, Red draws a lot of inspiration from tradition. Red is a rootless wanderer: Sabah-born, she studied architecture in Melbourne before settling in Shanghai, where her creativity went into complete overdrive. (Today, she runs her own studio in KL, with a team of artist-designers like herself.) After sharing more of her artwork on YouTube and gaining well-deserved popularity, Red was encouraged by her then-boss to take a sabbatical and explore her career in art. Here, she experimented beyond the basketball: moving to larger-than-life pieces crafted from coffee cup stains, celery sticks, socks, flowers and more.

Studio Red Hong Yi, where the artist and her team are based, is located in The Zhongshan Building at Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur.

“My penchant for unorthodoxy probably comes from having spent years working and living in China, and appreciating how life could be lived so differently from what’s considered usual, traditional or accepted,” she reflects. “Life is so full of potential and possibilities. There really is no one straight path when it comes to making art. The very crux of creativity, I think, is to be able to think out of the box and experiment, and not be bound by rules!”

Red Hong Yi cuts a sophisticated figure — it’s easy to feel a bit self-conscious when you first meet her. But if you’re familiar with her videos you’ll know that she is an easy-going presence. In one where she partners up with the Jackie Chan to create a portrait of him out of 64,000 chopsticks, the intro has them bantering over lunch. Red the artist is not all that different from her bright and bubbly personality, amplified only by her clear passion and focus. Her work over the years has garnered international attention. In 2015, Red was invited to present her work, “Teh Tarik Man”, made from 20,000 dyed teabags, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

After spending more than a decade in art, getting in touch with her roots comes naturally to Red. The way she sees it, each artist is armed with a story, and a duty to tell it. “I spend more time now intentionally thinking about my identity and cultural heritage in the works I create,” she expresses. “A theme that has powerfully influenced me recently is how the Asian American community was scrutinised and singled out as ‘culprits’ by certain groups during the pandemic. I saw how many people from that community spoke up against racism and asked bravely to be understood.”

“I Am Not A Virus” is Red’s clapback against racism towards Asian Americans related to COVID-19.

Moved by this grievous situation, Red adds, “It made me think about my own position in that narrative. How can my art be a vehicle to empathise and stand with oppressed people against oppressors? It’s great if it speaks to people within my culture who relate to similar experiences. But I also hope that it would offer something to others, to learn.”

Only onward and upward for Red Hong Yi

Getting in touch with the times, too, is instinctive for Red. With the rise of NFTs lately, she couldn’t resist chipping in to the community with her take: “Memebank” is Red’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on money and the glaring flaws of the banking system, and the project showcased memes printed onto ‘banknotes’.

“I believe the popularity of NFTs has grown in leaps and bounds as brands and artists become more acquainted with blockchain technology,” comments Red. “A lot of what’s going on in the local NFT scene right now is anchored in art, but there are many other industries — music, e-commerce, and real estate — that can utilise NFTs as a way to push their products and services beyond traditional mediums.”

Red Hong Yi shows off one of the ‘bank notes’ on display as part of the “Memebank” project.

Moving forward, Red feels incredibly hopeful about the future of art in Malaysia. Youths are showing lots of potential in expressing themselves artistically, and she is excited to see what they have to present for it. “The arts community in Kampung Attap, where my team and I are currently based, has really grown over the years, thanks to the support of various people and organisations,” she adds. “I would love to see more funding go towards this community, to help it grow into a thriving arts collective.”

Find out more about Red Hong Yi in the latest issue of LSA Digital Cover Vol.005 HERE.

(All images are taken from Instagram/@redhongyi)

Red Hong Yi on using the unconventional art form to tap into her roots

Puteri Yasmin Suraya

Brand & Partnerships Writer

Hailing from an English Literature & Creative Writing background, Yasmin has a deep love for fiction and poetry. When she’s not writing or café-hopping, she spends most of her time in the comfort of her own room binge-watching period romances, (badly) belting out show tunes, and curating Spotify playlists to match her mood for the week.

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