Outstanding Malaysians: Meet The Malaysian Artist Who Paints Without A Paintbrush

Chopsticks, socks, flowers, and cucumbers. To Red Hong Yi, they’re materials she can transform into the most amazing art pieces.

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Outstanding Malaysians: Meet The Malaysian Artist Who Paints Without A Paintbrush
Image: Red Hongyi
'Outstanding Malaysians' is a series of original articles where we honour and pay tribute to our fellow Malaysians who are making our country proud. 

This edition, we spoke to Red Hong Yi, a world-renowned artist who creates epic work of arts using nothing but ordinary everyday objects.

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The whole world knew about Red Hong Yi, the artist who made international news when a video of her painting a portrait of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming using just a basketball went viral in early 2012.

You may also have seen the Teh Tarik Man portrait which she created using teabags or the portrait of Jay Chou she made using coffee cup stains.

But how much do you know about the artist who paints without a paintbrush?

How Did The World-Famous Artist Get To Where She Is Today?

Red Hong Yi was born Hong Yi in Kota Kinabalu. Her last name, Hong, sounds like the Chinese word for 'red', and so, one of her best friends nicknamed her Red. Like other kids, she loved doodling and drawing.

This piece by Red Hong Yi is based on the Three Little Pigs tale. 
“My first memories of art was drawing Sesame Street characters on my kindy books. I just remembered loving to doodle everywhere.

"But then again, I do not know any child who does not like art – I believe it comes innately but eventually someone around us tells us “that looks bad” and we shy away from it. Fortunately, my parents thought my art was good (or entertaining) and kept encouraging me to continue,” she told Rojak Daily in an exclusive e-mail interview.

Using the hibiscus, Red partnered with Google to form Google’s homepage doodle in honour of Malaysia’s 57th Merdeka Day. 
“I learned that I was ‘good’ at it when my dad entered me into an art competition when I was seven-years old. He coached me over weeks (taught me how to colour, shade, etc) and out of 300 people, I was placed 2nd, to our surprise. That gave me the confidence to continue exploring art.”

However, she didn’t get anywhere in the second competition she entered. Red was told that her work looked too stiff and that she wasn’t expressing herself.

This melted candle portrait of Adele was inspired by the singer’s song, ‘Set Fire to the Rain’.From that experience, she learned that art is highly subjective.

“I got better at my technical skills, but in the back of my mind, I knew that to make good, impactful art, I had to learn to express myself through it.”

Despite being highly talented at art, she studied architecture as she and her parents had concerns that she wouldn’t be able to make a stable living financially as an artist.

This Is How She Began Painting Without A Paintbrush

After graduating from the University of Melbourne with a Master of Architecture in 2007, she moved to Shanghai to work for Australian architecture firm HASSELL. Shanghai and its chaotic nature, once home to her father and grandparents, enchanted Red.

As she didn’t bring her painting tools to China with her, she looked to the local market for materials. When she realised that she could buy materials in bulk at really low prices through apps like Taobao and Alibaba, she was mind-blown.

The world is her playground.
Besides the wide availability of materials in China, her architecture background also influenced her approach to art.

“My background in architecture has definitely shaped the way I tackle each project. I love exploring materials and pushing the boundaries of what they could be, especially when I multiply them in numbers. I try using ordinary, everyday objects and turning them into something that totally does not look like that.”

Red created a portrait of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in the alleyway next to her home in Shanghai.
It was here, in November 2011, that she created the first super installation made out of everyday objects.

Inspired by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’ installation -- a work made of 100 million sunflower seed replicas made of porcelain -- she collected 100,000 sunflower seeds (that’s about 7kg) and used them to create a portrait of the artist.

And when a friend gave her a basketball and asked her to paint with it, what did she do? She dipped the ball in red paint and dribbled all over a white canvas, painting a portrait of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming.

The video was uploaded to YouTube and just like that, Red Hong Yi became an international sensation.

Luckily, her boss at HASSELL was great and encouraged her to take a six-month sabbatical to explore the opportunity for a career in art. For a while, she juggled between art and architecture before quitting in 2013 to become a full-time artist.

Painting Famous Faces

She would go on to make waves around the world for her made-with-unconventional-materials portraits of famous icons such as Zhang Yimou (750 pairs of socks and some bamboo sticks), Jay Chou (coffee cup stains), Adele (melted candles), Jackie Chan (64,000 chopsticks), Justin Bieber (Korean chilli paste), Mark Zuckerberg (36 Game of Thrones books), football stars Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar (football), to name a few.

Coffee, tea, or Jay?
Besides Chinese icons and other international celebs, Malaysian icons and themes are also featured prominently in Red’s work.

In 2013, she used 1,800 shuttlecocks and some acrylics to construct an image of Malaysian badminton player and hero Dato' Lee Chong Wei.

Like us, Red is a fan of Datuk Lee Chong Wei too!Then, commissioned to form a piece about Malaysia for the World Economic Forum in 2015, she collected 20,000 teabags and constructed a scene we see almost every day at our local kopitiam – a man preparing teh tarik.

Whether they’re large-scale installations or scenes made with food or black and white doodles, Red Hong Yi’s pieces are so easy for everyone to relate to.

A part of the 31 Days of Food Creativity series, this soy sauce and chilli sauce piece is called Sabah.
“I honestly never gave it much thought when I first started creating these ‘unconventional’ pieces. I created them and displayed them outside my house in Shanghai, in an old laneway compound, to engage with people who lived in my neighbourhood,” she revealed.

She said that people find her artworks relatable, probably due to the fact that they were made of materials that everyone is familiar with.

"I think the video element played a big part to why people ‘understood’ my work – it shows everything from start to finish, including the mess in my studio, paint drips and the occasional ‘mistakes’, instead of a nicely polished, finished piece hung in a neat gallery space.”

Jackie Chan loved Red Hong Yi’s portraits of Zhang Yimou and Jay Chou and commissioned her to create a portrait of him.
When Rojak Daily asked her which project stood out the most in her memory, she mentioned the Jackie Chan portrait.

“Working on the Jackie Chan piece in his studio for two months! I got to see him walking in and out and checking on my piece. It was fun and surreal!”

And which project was the most challenging?

The teabags were stained in 10 different shades of brown.“Maybe the Jackie Chan piece too – or the Teh Tarik Man piece for the World Economic Forum. They were both complex pieces that required a lot of time and logistical gymnastics," she recalled.

An Artist With A Heart Of Gold

Red Hong Yi’s use of bulk materials in her previous works can be considered a form of commentary on the mass production of goods and consumerism in China.

When we asked her about other issues she wants to bring attention to, she said: “Now though, issues that I am exploring through my art is the fragility of the environment (I’m trying to use recyclable materials) and the refugee crisis. Human rights is something I am passionate about and I hope that I can use my art to help others.”

‘Girl’ was made of rolled socks for Uniqlo SoHo in New York.  The socks were later donated to the homeless.
A former World Vision ambassador, the 31-year-old is indeed an artist with a heart of gold. Since 2014, she has also been sponsoring a child in Cambodia.

In 2015, she drew 100 black and white cartoons for donours who donated a minimum of US$100 (RM419) to World Vision to help the victims of the Nepal earthquake and raised a total of US$16,000 (RM67,088) in just two days.

One of the #ArtforNepal black and white doodles Red Hong Yi drew in support of the victims of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake.
Earlier this year, in February, Red visited Hope Educational Support Centre, a Syrian refugee school supported by the London Speaker Bureau and Najda Now International to speak about art. She encouraged the kids to create art out of any materials they found around them.

Many artists experience a form of creative stagnancy or block from time to time. We wondered if she has ever faced artist’s block.

“Yes, for sure. And I think that happens when I don’t think my work is good enough, and when I get fearful. When my mind is relaxed, happy and open, ideas get to me.”

Once A Malaysian, Forever A Malaysian

Despite all her fame and success, Red believes she’s still the same person. “Fame is fleeting, I don’t let it get to my head!”
In honour of Malaysia Day, Rojak Daily asked her what she loves most about our country.

“I love the laidback lifestyle and fresh air in Sabah – and how I’m able to go diving and climb mountains where I live! And of course, being with family and friends. It’s all the small things that mean a lot to me.”

Well said, Red, well said! It’s the little things that matter most.

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