WUHAN – Scribbled instructions for incoming patients pasted on the window of a silent hospital reception desk. A lone worker in a hazmat suit, regularly spraying disinfectant in the hallway of an empty hospital.
Such scenes from the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan – moments of fear and despair as well as unity and resilience – are etched in the mind of artist Yang Qian.
A year later, she is channeling those memories into works of art to preserve the memory of the 76-day lockdown of the central Chinese city that turned the lives of some 11 million people upside down. In a way, this is an extension of her work as a volunteer providing life-saving supplies to hospitals and residents during the traumatic time, while also reflecting the pride many residents have in resisting the epidemic and the drastic measures taken to bring it under control.
“To express what I saw in a realistic way, it is the responsibility that I have given myself. I also hope that a large part of history should not be forgotten, ”Yang said.
A painter by profession, she felt helpless in the face of an unknown virus that ravaged her beloved hometown in January 2020. Fear gripped the city as authorities abruptly shut down its residents in their homes and froze transport links January 23.
Two days later, she started volunteering with a group delivering protective clothing, masks and other supplies around hospitals. In 4 months, she and a volunteer colleague delivered some 90,000 sets of protective clothing and around 450,000 face masks.
While touring, she responded to requests from residents and strangers, delivering much-needed supplies ranging from medicines and disinfectants to food. Sleep was at a premium as sometimes deliveries were made early in the morning.
Her first post-pandemic work of art, “Reception”, was born out of the experience of accompanying a mother and daughter to the hospital in early February. The two had developed symptoms of COVID-19 after the father died at home from the illness and in despair took to social media for help.
Yang saw the message and found a hospital ready to accept the couple, but was told no ambulance was available.
With public transport closed, the only solution was to go to the hospital by bicycle, with Yang in the lead.
At the front desk, she saw instructions for new patients stuck randomly on her window, some scribbled by hand. Stretched out, the hospital staff pointed to the window instead of answering questions.
“It made me feel a kind of oppression, a kind of fear,” Yang said. “Everyone, especially doctors, spends their time just rescuing patients.”
She meticulously reproduced the scene in an oil painting, even in her torn papers and scribbled notices.
A second oil painting followed, based on a photograph of a worker disinfecting a hospital hallway, rendered in dark hues of deep blue and black.
“It’s in such a dire situation (but) even in this atmosphere, there are still people standing up for us and protecting us,” Yang said.
Soon after sending the mother-daughter couple to the hospital, Yang fell with a fever and cough and feared she might have the virus. In tears, she went to the hospital to get tested and began to write her will. After what she calls the longest hour of her life waiting for results, she has been given the green light.
A year later, Wuhan is largely back to normal, with its streets teeming with shoppers, nightclubs throbbing until dawn, and retirees dancing to a Chinese rendition of a Katy Perry song along of the Yangtze River illuminated by neon lights. Only face masks that residents conscientiously wear provide a visual reminder of the impact of the pandemic.
“What I see is the unity of our city, our nation. I find that I am really very proud to be a Chinese, ”said Yang, expressing a widespread sentiment which was strongly encouraged by the government, which some accused of mismanaging the initial phase of the epidemic and have allowed it to spread around the world. .
An exhibition she organized last year at a gallery she runs brought together 23 artists with 60 works of art related to the coronavirus.
His efforts were applauded by the media and residents of Wuhan. The exhibit “crystallized every moving moment of the pandemic,” said entrepreneur and friend Michael Liu.
“Unifying art and thought, and taking action, is something that many of us cannot do,” he said.
Yang is currently working on an aerial view the size of a locked Wuhan wall, with individual residents represented by black ink dots. It is an expression of their unity in overcoming the crisis, as well as unseen pain.
She still feels this pain when speaking with residents and survivors who have become depressed or have withdrawn from social life.
“Some people are slowly trying to recover, just to get out of that shadow. Then there are some who cannot get out, because this virus and this disaster really took away their loved ones, ”Yang said.
For now, she is focusing on making up for lost time by the pandemic, working on her painting, managing her gallery and preparing for upcoming exhibitions. The pandemic, she said, is a reminder of how precious this time can be: “Life is really very fragile and small.”
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