Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 28 May 2020

‘How can I offer something positive in this situation?’: How artists are taking on the coronavirus outbreak

We speak to the artists paying homage to medical workers and responding to the outbreak of Covid-19 in different ways

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to take over headlines, artists around the world are responding to the situation through their work. Some, like Duyi Han, want to pay tribute to the medical workers toiling to contain the spread. His work, The Saints Wear White, venerates the doctors and medical staff in Wuhan, who were on the front line of the fight against the virus since it broke out.

Creating a digital concept, he depicts the figures as church frescoes in a Wuhan chapel. “I love fresco paintings as an art form. They are powerful in evoking the emotion of respect and the sublime. I use it to show respect and to advocate for these medical workers,” says Han, who is from Shanghai and currently living in Los Angeles, where he runs a design studio. He has also created an oil painting version of the work and hopes to sell it to raise funds for containment efforts in Hubei.

Han has close ties to Wuhan. His grandparents live in the city, and he says they are trying to cope despite the lockdown. “They try to send me more optimistic messages when I talk to them. Maybe the actual situation might be more difficult,” he says.

Duyi Han, designer and creative director of Doesn't Come Out design studio, has created a concept for a mural that pays tribute to the medical workers in Wuhan. The work is part of a series called 'The Saints Wear White'. Courtesy Duyi Han
Duyi Han, designer and creative director of Doesn't Come Out design studio, has created a concept for a mural that pays tribute to the medical workers in Wuhan. The work is part of a series called 'The Saints Wear White'. Courtesy Duyi Han

Since the outbreak, doctors and medical workers have faced infection, fatigue and even death. Late last month, the World Health Organisation reported that 3,387 medical staff in China had been infected with Covid-19.

Han says he wanted to elevate perceptions of medical staff impacted by the crises through his fresco, which echoes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. “In general, I think there should be a much higher public regard to these people in China. So when I created this work, I felt this strong emotion behind that,” he says.

When healthcare workers protested in Hong Kong early last month, illustrator Stephanie Belbin created her first work about the virus. “I saw the image of the medical workers on strike and really saw their emotions underneath the mask and just felt compelled to draw it,” she says.

Belbin, a former Hong Kong resident who still has friends and family in the city, says “it was one way that I could still connect with people there … I wanted them to know I was thinking of them”.

In Japan, where she currently lives, Covid-19 has also disrupted daily life – national museums have been closed in Tokyo and other cities, and the Spring Basho, the annual sumo tournament, will be held behind closed doors with no spectators allowed.

Due to the outbreak in Japan, the Japan Sumo Association has announced that the spring tournament will be held behind closed doors. Courtesy Stephanie Belbin
Due to the outbreak in Japan, the Japan Sumo Association has announced that the spring tournament will be held behind closed doors. Courtesy Stephanie Belbin

Through his Surrealist works, artist Tommy Fung, who posts his art on Instagram under the account @surrealhk, looks at the outbreak with a tinge of satire and dark humour. His digitally manipulated pieces exaggerate the panic caused by the virus – from a pyramid of people clamouring for a face mask to Covid-19 soldiers patrolling the streets.

Crediting his upbringing in Venezuela, Fung says, “I just make it more exaggerated, more eye-catching and easier to understand … It is a very typical Latin American humour … where people can make jokes about everything. Laughs bring positive vibes and I hope to bring some of that with my artworks even in this difficult situation.”

Artist Tommy Fung uses surreal elements in his digital works to comment on the Covid-19 outbreak in Hong Kong. Courtesy Tommy Fung / @surrealhk 
Artist Tommy Fung uses surreal elements in his digital works to comment on the Covid-19 outbreak in Hong Kong. Courtesy Tommy Fung / @surrealhk

Cartoonist Weng Chen also uses humour in her work. Born and raised in Wuhan, Chen has lived in the US for more than a decade. She says her family in Wuhan have remained healthy, and are co-­ordinating with their community to prevent cross-infections. She created a cartoon strip detailing the “positive influence” of quarantine, a comical take on the lockdown. “I wanted to create something to lift people’s spirits a little bit. How can I offer something positive in this situation?,” she says.

For engineering student Rana Babu, who lives in Al Ain, staying positive and considerate is also important. Replicating an artwork she saw online, she has painted a collage of faces with flags instead of face masks to show the various countries affected by Covid-19 and express her solidarity.

In Italy (one of the worst affected countries in Europe so far, with 2,502 cases as of yesterday), an artist who goes by the pseudonym Andrea Villa takes on the media. His works can be described as “fake news” interventions, where he inserts posters – often about politicians – into advertising billboards at night and waits for news sites to report on them the next day.

For his poster on Covid-19, Villa has reworked painter Renato Guttuso’s La Vucciria, which shows a scene from a market abundant with food, and passers-by seemingly lost in their thoughts. In Villa’s piece, which was installed in Turin, the people now wear masks. “I looked into the eyes of the people in the canvas, and I felt that’s what’s happening,” he says.

“The perception [of Covid-19] is apocalyptic. There were people wearing gas masks, the supermarket shelves are empty,” he adds. On social media, he says, the fear of the virus can be heightened to the point of hysteria. His work asks people to reconsider how they consume news and content. “It’s about how the media can distort reality. I want to analyse visual media culture in a way that people can understand… People are overwhelmed by the information and have fear. We need to create a different way to treat the information,” he says.

Indeed, the news cycle and the climate of panic can be all-consuming, as seen in Kristoffer Kullengren’s frenetic painting Covid-19 on my mind. “I feel that the panic surrounding this epidemic is blown way out of proportion and wanted to illustrate the stress and frustration that I am feeling towards the situation,” he says.

A second painting, Future Proof, presents a more hopeful outlook. “Viruses are what strengthens our DNA making us stronger as a species,” he says, referring to the development of viral immunity within humans.

Updated: March 5, 2020 01:51 PM

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