How COVID-19 is changing contemporary art and expression

Sammohinee Ghosh
New Update
How COVID-19 is changing contemporary art and expression

Clapping to ward off COVID-19, by Hasif Khan

A doctor in a sky blue apron with a belt around his waist and baggy navy blue pants (much like the traditional keriya costume Hindu gods wear), stands cross-legged with a halo around his head as commoners throng him in dua (prayer). The picture depicts Krishna, who in Hindu mythology lifted the Govardhan hill to protect the inhabitants of Vrindavan. Under the curse of an angry Indra, they were suffering from extreme rains and thunder. This illustration, titled Tomorrow Is Fine by Hasif Khan, explores the current socio-political milieu, where medical practitioners are fighting the Coronavirus pandemic despite serious risk to life. The artwork signifies how, after COVID-19 hit, doctors and nurses are being seen as demigods.


In another digital artwork, a man balances a sunny-side-up egg on one hand with a teacup in the other, while a painter attempts to draw on a blank canvas, some homebodies tend to plants and a pup demands belly-rubs all day long. This graphic piece -- Ghar Mein Rahe (Stay At Home) by Piyush Punj -- is a collage of remote work-from-home scenes.

As Covid-19 tears apart our sense of safety, and makes us envision our collective future through fear, it has also given rise to new avenues of art and expression.

Recreation of Humanity. Pic: Hasif Khan

Art has always been a mirror of society and societal change. In a world wading through distressing Coronavirus updates, contemporary visual art is indeed changing, it’s carrying out its role of social and political responsibility with urgency.

Also Read: Coronavirus Lockdown: Suicide helplines clogged as janta curfew takes toll over mental health of migrant labourers

The politics of a pandemic

Khan is an illustrator for weekly Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan. Ask him why his cartoons are newsy or wrapped in political overtones (although it doesn’t qualify as a question to any democratic being), and he says, “As an observer, it impacts me. I am affected and so are you. How else will my work have a seasonal essence? I observe and juxtapose concepts with occurrences.”

Train Accident. Pic: Hasif Khan

The Social Distance (one of his pieces) has had a lasting impression on viewers. Groups of migrant workers huddle together and walk to reach home, as living in a place you can’t call your own makes death worse. “It made me want to question our faith in good governance.”

Tabligh Check. Pic: Hasif Khan

Khan’s body of works exhibits nostalgia. The sketches resemble printed hand drawings in bright primary colours that appeared in elementary textbooks in the 1990s.

Also Read: A migrant worker’s 1,200km journey on foot during the Coronavirus lockdown 

Fine-tuning the paintbrush

Punj says slowing down has changed his perspective. “I am not constantly chasing an ambition or standard ideas of accomplishment any longer. We have journeyed through normalcy to reach this stage. The lockdown may hand us over to a kind of order we are unfamiliar with; it is already upending human behavioural trends."

Besides all negatives, the pandemic has come with the gift of time. So, why let that go?

COVID-19 has made Punj, a graphic designer based in Bangalore, more contemplative of his art and depiction.He has contributed to a couple of awareness campaigns and has modified his stylistic form.

Ghar Mein Rahe/Stay At Home. Pic: Piyush Punj

“I talk through my work. Earlier, it was complex and layered. Now, I suffer from this urge of quick and direct communication. I am using straight lines and simple curves more,” he adds.

Also Read: Valley of angst: Double-whammy of Coronavirus lockdown and internet shutdown leaves Kashmir in limbo

The illustrator, who holds a degree in fashion communication, says, “Never did I think of a pandemic as a uniting force. I have the privilege to work from home, frontliners don’t. My series – Corona Warriors – is dedicated to them. Self-reliance is hogwash when we depend on delivery persons for essentials.” Punj is grateful for being able to develop his craft. He often seeks feedback from friends and collaborators to “keep working on incoherence, if any.” He describes incoherence as what he means to convey and what is being interpreted by his audience.

Documenting art in the time of Coronavirus

Art is flooding the internet in these times be it street art, graphics, installation, and animation.  While art could come across as incidental amid other pressing needs, it is a fluid form of expression and speaks a thousand words. Art creates a window of expression that helps people escape from the mundane. 

Delivery boys are also Corona warriors. This artwork is titled Corona Warrior III. Pic: Piyush Punj

For the ordinary, art is an elevated means of dream-fulfillment; a subversion of struggle; a hope for endeavour; and the feeling we most seek - compassion.It is no surprise that this unprecedented situation has given rise to the world’s first online Covid Art Museum.

Also Read: Coronavirus lockdown: Homelessness, loan defaults loom large as North East migrants face discrimination & job cuts

Four friends, three in Spain and one in Germany, have joined hands to come up with a virtual museum on Instagram to essay the present as is. Irene Llorca, José Guerrero, Emma Calvo and Dilay Yaman receive hundreds of submissions each day. They each have other demanding day jobs, and with all the art pouring in, selection isn’t easy. What’s driving them? “It is our love for visual art. Just that,” says Yaman.

Healthcare providers are the new superheroes. 'Game Changer'. Pic: @banksy/Instagram

“The lockdown has broken our chain of rushed energy. It has allowed us to enjoy a gap to imagine and innovate. The enforced limits have propelled artists to remain limitless in their thoughts. A campaign by a tour company asked people to send in travel situations from the insides of their homes. It was linked to a giveaway. I, immediately, spread a blue sheet all across my bed, put on my swimsuit and took a photograph. You have to figure it out differently,” Yaman explains.

Also Read: COVID-19 not only affects life, but also strangles the business of death

Their initiative was also meant to push for visibility. “Independent artists, globally, are facing unforeseen hardships. Exhibitions are being cancelled and the chances of commissioned art have dipped too. Holding onto one’s skill becomes difficult in such times. Quite a few people thanked us for being contacted and offered projects after their illustrations featured on the gram. It seemed like we have done a bit of good,” she cheerfully adds.

If the Coronavirus disease is an interface for us to lose, learn and find ourselves, art is a fitting way to go through it.

(Lead Pic by @vicgraphic/Instagram; Special credit: @covidartmuseum/Instagram)

(Sammohinee Ghosh is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist, who is always dreaming about food, films, and fiction.) 

Also Read: How COVID-19 is bringing people and administration closer in Kashmir

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