Cropped version of Paul James, ‘Man in a Box’ series, digital illustration
Paul James, ‘Man in a Box’ series, digital illustration (cropped)

The world is still coming to terms with life in the time of COVID-19. Culture sectors in the UK and across the globe have been badly affected, with mass closures across theatres, music venues, libraries and other arts venues. In this new series of interviews, we spoke to artists and cultural professionals around the world, to see how individuals are coping with lockdown.  

We’re starting the series in China, where the Covid-19 outbreak first began and where new cases are now confirmed in Beijing and other cities. In this interview our British Council China team spoke to both local and foreign artists who call China their home…

Ruiqi Dai is a graduate of the Royal College of Art, who went on to receive A’Design Award recognition and has had collections featured in Milan Design week and Maison & Objet Paris. She’s now returned home to China, most recently founding the online Ruiqi Gallery in 2019 to showcase her ceramic design pieces. Ruiqi is now based in Hefei, Anhui province.

‘The virus has certainly been devastating news for me. We were actually planning an exhibition in Wuhan this year, which now needs to be postponed to October. What’s important too is what people will think about Wuhan after this epidemic, and whether we’ll see a second wave next winter. These are really serious problems for us if we are going to have an exhibition there.’

The lockdown, and the requirement to use  online platforms, has had a significant effect on how Ruiqi is developing her brand: 

‘It’s very weird to ask people who study ceramics and glass to make a 2D exhibition. I think this hugely depends on the industry. With graphic design maybe it is easier to go online, but for physical objects, like furniture, it is about creating an immersive environment, and letting people feel it with their hands. Without the physical touch it’s completely different to the viewer.

‘I was more inspired from a business level, in how really important it is to go online. What I used to do is connect to galleries and exhibitions, but I think this epidemic inspired me to get more direct sales online. I have registered official accounts on social media apps like Xiaohongshu, Weibo, and Wechat to show my work. Before I came back to China, 80% of my business was from abroad, now after the virus, about 90% is here in China.’

Paul James is a UK graphic designer, illustrator and painter who has been living in Wuhan, the epicentre of COVID-19 in China, for the last 7 years. 

Last year, Paul’s Pop Art in the City project, a series of multicoloured and multi-layered screen prints of structures around Wuhan, was expanding to include other city’s local landmarks, but the lockdown drew focus away from cityscapes to a more intimate subject. ‘Windows in Wuhan fits the new narrative - I’d done some illustrations before and people were focussing more on buildings and bridges then, but when the lockdown happened I felt people had more time to notice the details, and it just managed to come together well.’

Paul’s recent confinement inspired his newest series Man in a Box, and marks a previously unexplored direction, his first animated and downloadable GIF works. ‘I wanted to show how we were all kind of in a box at that moment, and recognised that we do need to be more flexible now in terms of branching out to other disciplines. I don’t know how to use any animating tools, so why not learn to animate and make GIFs? I wanted to keep busy and I wanted the images to promote getting off your phone.’

Amongst uncertainty about how far galleries will go to digitse their viewing experiences, James is positive about the future: ‘We don’t know what’ll be happening even two or three months from now, but it’s not feeling like a short term thing. Even smaller galleries around here are adapting to show work online. Rather than standing at the edge wondering “should we go digital?”, now if you don’t take that step and go digital you won’t get seen if things aren’t improving around the world. It's all been a learning experience.’

Daisy Deng is a children’s book illustrator who graduated from Cambridge School of Art, and now resides in Dalian. A love of getting out and exploring the world is a common theme of Daisy’s work, but her international travel plans for 2020 came to a sharp halt as the lockdown came into effect, a situation that really hit home for her as a Hubei native.

Daisy found a host of new ways to engage online as an illustrator, and what started from a necessity resulted in some small part to make up for cancelled travel plans. 

‘The editors I knew started to promote books online, and many artists, writers, museums and galleries all went online too. It really is time and money saving; for example you can have a lecture taught by an illustrator in Japan in the morning and then in the afternoon you can see an online exhibition from a museum in America.

‘I used Skillshare, Masterclass and Coursera for lectures, and I watched art documentaries on Netflix, Bilibili and YouTube. For resources, so many museums have free materials for inspiration and learning - Getty Centre, Tate Modern, MET, and MOMA are just some. The downside is most of the lectures were pre-recorded, you still can’t really have interactions. Plus book-related exhibitions are much more than just seeing books - there’s this physical form and all the senses; the look, smell, touch, sound - it’s so different from seeing it on screens.’

David Tait is a British writer who has published two collections of poetry in the UK, and has been based in China for the last 7 years, now residing in Shanghai. 

Between planned book projects, David admits to leaning towards more trivial subject matter in his poetry, but a sudden change in lifestyle mirrored an inevitable change in his writing: 

‘When the lockdown first started, you couldn’t get face masks, but luckily I had loads because I used to live in Nanjing which was pretty polluted then; I actually gave some to neighbours and the security guard downstairs.

‘Then my writing started to turn towards the stuff that was happening - about the security guards, being temperature checked, observing people wearing masks on the street, people staring at ambulances going by.’

In terms of migrating online, David was ahead of the curve, having taught a poetry workshop for the UK’s The Poetry School for years. ‘More and more people have been getting involved. I also did a Zoom training workshop. I thought ‘you’re all going online, I’ve been using Zoom for a while, come along and I’ll help you use it’. It wasn’t only writers and poets signing up, but also just keen and curious learners, I even had someone from the NHS.’

During lockdown David has also contributed poems to a recent project started by former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy at Manchester Metropolitan University, Write Where We Are Now. ‘When you send a poem over they’ll order it chronologically, creating a virtual online map of people’s responses around the world to the virus.’

Written by Tom Burton with contributions from the British Council Arts team in China. #CultureConnectsUs 

Want to know more about the impact Covid-19 has had on the arts sector in China? Rehana Mughal, Director Arts in China and Ian Thomas, Head of Evidence in Arts take a look.

Worried about Covid-19 and your practice? We've pulled together the latest advice, funding, resources, and tipsfrom across the sector for staying creative.