KUALA LUMPUR: When you step into the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, you’ll be stopped in your tracks by a huge bamboo structure materialising before your very eyes.
Draped across the poles spanning the length and breadth of this structure are bright red and pale pink garments from baby’s tops to adult’s jumpers. There are even old towels.
Flanking this fiery display of colour overhead are eight hanging artworks of burnt calligraphy paper forming something of a tunnel beckoning you to step forward.
The most dramatic artwork in this captivating composition takes pride of place in the very centre – a portrait of an elderly woman created out of hundreds of colourful socks.
This is the work of Malaysian contemporary artist Red Hong Yi, who gives a glimpse of her life in Shanghai through her exhibition ‘Once Upon A Longtang’.
Longtangs or alley houses were built in Shanghai from the 1840s to 1940s. In her exhibition, Red captures her time spent in Shanghai where she lived with her grand aunties and grand uncle from 2011 to 2013.
From women thronging the cramped alleyways chattering about their children to vendors peddling vegetables as laundry fluttered overhead, the streets were a cacophony of sounds and excited energy, which fascinated Red at the time.
“I had one of the best times of my life living with my grand aunties, who were in their 80s then. Over time, we forged a strong bond and we became housemates.
“While I shared my experiences with work, my grand aunties would tell me stories about China and about their lives, and we would always share a good banter,” she told FMT.
However, one of her grand aunties and grand uncle passed away during the Covid-19 pandemic, and their house in central Shanghai was demolished in the name of development.
“Sometimes I wonder if I could have spent more time with my grand aunties, and done more, but I’m glad I did what I could. In a way, this exhibition is to commemorate them and my time spent in Shanghai,” she shared.
And for this Chinese New Year, Red said that she was happy to show a glimpse of her roots; artworks of her family to preserve a part of her identity.
Artwork using burnt calligraphy paper and colourful socks
In one video she posted on Facebook, Red is seen using a burner to spark a fire and a soldering tool to extinguish the fire in order to create burn marks on one of her artworks.
The discovery was purely accidental, she said, after she accidentally burned red calligraphy paper onto canvas but found herself falling in-love with the brown effect it left behind.
So enamoured was she by this discovery, she applied the technique to eight paintings, referencing actual photographs she took when in Shanghai.
Among these photographs is one of a girl in the midst of hanging clothes on the poles outside, and one of her grand aunty relaxing on a sofa.
If there is one portrait that truly captivates, it would have to be that of her late grand aunty that she painstakingly pieced together using hundreds of pairs of red, white and pink socks to create depth, contrast and texture.
“When I was creating a portrait of a filmmaker in Shanghai, my grand aunty was there. She was very much a part of the process as she would ask me questions, and she saw me drying the clothes outside.
“So for this exhibition, I wanted to pay a tribute to her, and that was why I decided to collect socks to do a portrait of her,” she said.
The clothes hanging on the poles were deliberately chosen both for their colour palette and to give her creation more authenticity.
Red explained that the clothes were sourced from Kloth Circularity – a textile factory that takes in second-hand clothes from across the globe.
“The clothes that you see in the exhibition were taken from there. In a way, I wanted second-hand clothes to signify that these were used by people.
“I deliberately chose the colour red as I wanted to stick to this palette moving forward. I guess it’s also an iconic look for my works as well,” she said.
‘Once Upon A Longtang’ will be exhibited at the National Art Gallery until March 22.
For more information on Red’s artwork, click here