Prof Leoni Schmidt reflects on how and why artists are responding to the pandemic.

Plagues and pandemics are not new and neither are the arts' responses to them. After a certain number of cases, our imagination fails to comprehend the size of the disaster. These artworks are political in the sense that they speak of and to power, while unmasking the unimaginable.

The World Health Organisation's plea that COVID-19 should not be politicised seems naȉve, despite possibly best intentions; it is inherently highly politicised as its effects impact on the lives and livelihoods of people, on their power or disempowerment, as we have learnt from earlier plagues. For example, homeless people, and those living at close quarters in slums, shanty towns, and overpopulated townships, are in no position to abide by the 'rules' for sanitising and social distancing. One could argue that COVID-19 extended contexts of desperation in many parts of the world, and that the conditions for socio-political protest such as Black Lives Matter were intensified by its strictures and the underlying anxieties and the paranoia revealed by pandemics. 

The 2020 artwork by Tommy Fung, Meanwhile in Hong Kong, reminds one of a famous painting by Théodore Géricault titled The Raft of the Medusa (shown) wherein a group of disenfranchised sailors reach up in pyramid format to wave a white rag in desperation for survival after their shipwreck. Tommy Fung's work suggests that we are shipwrecked in the midst of urban civilisation. What kind of world do we want to rebuild after the gates of our cities are again thrown open and COVID-19 has become a troubled memory?

June 2021

Image: The Raft of the Medusa (La Balsa de la Medusa), by Jean Louis Théodore Géricault (Louvre Museum, 1818-19), photograph in Public Domain