Published on 8 December 2017

Photos: Courtesy of Red Hongyi.

The Malaysian architect-turned-artist has achieved international fame from creating art using everyday materials in unconventional ways.

By Melanie Lee

You may have seen one of Red Hongyi’s viral videos, whether it’s the one where she creates a portrait of basketballer Yao Ming by dipping a basketball in red paint, or the one where she paints Jay Chou’s face using coffee cup stains. These art projects initially started out as a personal hobby while she worked as an architect in Shanghai. However, with the global attention and subsequent commissions she received from such works, Red was soon able to pursue art full-time. Today, she bases herself both in her hometown of Kota Kinabalu and Los Angeles, but also goes around the world for various jobs. Last year, she did a Merlion mural for Facebook’s Singapore office by torching wooden chopsticks. Her latest project this year brought her to the Anchorage Museum in Alaska where she did shadow artworks of Star Wars characters. She shares with The A List a little more about her journey as an artist thus far.

Photos: Courtesy of Red Hongyi.

What was your relationship with art when you were young?
I have always loved it. Mum had a Picasso print in her room and she told me how the master artist could use just a few simple lines to express so much. I fell in love with art as a kid.

While still practicing as an architect, what made you also want to dabble with your own “art stuff” on the side?
While work was intense at the architecture firm – there was lots of overtime work – but I did enjoy my time there. I was on the computer most of the time though, so I felt like building things with my hands – that’s what led me to experimenting with art projects when I had the time to. I was also frustrated that the buildings I designed would take years to get built, so I wanted to work on something that could be done in a much shorter time-frame.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a full-time artist?
I’ve always had that dream but I knew it was unrealistic – it’s one of those far-off daydreams like becoming an NBA player one day. However, after posting my work online and getting commission inquiries that matched my salary, I started giving it more thought.

Photos: Courtesy of Red Hongyi.

What has been the most interesting response to your art?
I installed a piece made of 2,000 socks in a laneway in Shanghai, and strangers young and old started helping me assemble the piece because they were excited to see it come together. They kept asking why I was doing what I was doing, and I was amused that they kept going at it though my answer was, “just for fun”.

Photos: Courtesy of Red Hongyi.
Photos: Courtesy of Red Hongyi.

What is the most memorable project you’ve worked on so far?
Working in Jackie Chan’s studio for a commissioned portrait for him using chopsticks was definitely a highlight! I spent a month sourcing materials and working in a small village in Zhejiang with 20 ladies. That was such an experience…we even “cooked” the chopsticks using firewood and then transported it to his office in Beijing and where I worked for a month. It was surreal seeing him almost every day, and not on the big screen!

Many Asian parents shudder at the thought of their children becoming artists. How did your parents respond when you told them of your decision to switch from architecture to art? What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of making a similar switch?
I think it’s understandable – if I had a kid, I would probably have reservations if he/she wanted to go full-time into art too. I was lucky that I had well-paid commissions coming in while I was working full-time as an architect, so it did not feel like that big of a risk to make that switch. My parents were unsure about it at first, but now they’re my biggest supporters. I don’t think I can give general advice because everyone’s story is different – but if someone’s seriously thinking of pursuing art I’d say this: work very hard, show your work, connect with people in the art world and believe in yourself – it is not impossible to make it, but there will be challenges along the way, that’s for sure!

How do you sustain yourself (creatively, emotionally, spiritually, physically) given your projects are usually large-scale and intense and take you all over the world?
I’m still learning as I go along! I try to stay connected with my friends and loved ones. Eating well, sleeping enough and exercise helps too – I’m loving yoga lately!

Click here to find out more about the work of Red Hongyi or follow her on Instagram below.

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