COVID-19 is currently changing the world as we know it. A viral illness first detected in Wuhan, China, it quickly spread across international borders, infecting hundreds, then thousands, then millions.
The virus has altered our daily lives in profound ways, shaping our behavior, communities and society for generations to come. However, the pandemic did not stop the production of art, as artists all around the world felt the need to interpret and comment on our new reality and invest their energy and creativity into relief efforts.
Street Art Responds to the Pandemic
As the ultimate visual source of social commentary, street art was quite outspoken about the crisis. All around the world, street artists ventured out into the streets, leaving vibrant, thought-provoking and amusing responses to it. While some pieces are playful and uplifting, others are more serious, challenging our new reality, paying homage to the people on the front lines of this battle or being critical about politicians and the way they handled the crisis.
Many street artists decided to celebrate the nurses and front-line healthcare workers as the real heroes in this crisis. Banksy paid homage to the NHS and nurses everywhere with a piece titled Game Changer (above), a black-and-white stenciled sketch featuring a young boy playing with a NHS nurse superhero toy. The piece is currently on view at Southampton General Hospital, and it will then be auctioned for NHS charities. Similarly, Amsterdam-based street artist FAKE created a mural titled Super Nurse (main image), depicting a nurse wearing a face mask emblazoned with the Superman logo; the Denver-based artist Austin Zucchini-Fowler painted a mural titled Healthcare Hero, depicting winged health care worker wearing a face mask and a pair of red boxing gloves; while the Mexican-American artist Mauricio Ramirez covered a building in Milwaukee with a striking geometric piece titled Frontline Heroes (below), showing a nurse wearing a mask in a prayer-like pose.
Other artists provided a more critical response to the way the crisis was being handled by people in charge. For example, Bristol-based street artists John D’oh presented his own take (second image below) on the dangerous statement Trump made about injecting disinfectant as a potential solution against the virus. At the same time, the Brazilian right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro himself, who discouraged social distancing and lockdown and shrugged off the country’s rising coronavirus death toll, ended up as the subject of a range of murals across the country. The artist Aira Ocrespo depicted him with a clown’s nose, while another local artist showed him putting on a protective face mask with a variation of the Portuguese word for “coward” written on it. Similarly, Australian street artist LUSHSUX painted Chinese president Xi Jinping wearing a hazmat suit while saying, “Nothing to see. Carry on” (below), alluding to the potential cover-up of the actual number of deaths in the country.
Artists such as Smokey D and Zeus took to the streets to communicate accurate public health information and encourage people to stay safe and strong, while those like EME Freethinker and Darion Fleming mocked the lesser aspects of our humanity such as hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizers. Eudardo Kobra highlighted the importance of coexistence in the times of crisis with an inspiring mural in Itu, Brazil, while the Chicago-based mosaic artist Jim Bachor paved the way to some unexpected smiles with several additions to his “pothole art” series installed on the city’s North Side. Filling the potholes with his distinct brand of mosaics, he created imagery in homage to the city’s experience with the pandemic.
The Art World Coming to the Rescue
Amidst the crisis, many artists felt they needed to do more than just stay at home. As cultural venues, projects, spaces and publications around the world became existentially threatened by the crisis, the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans decided to do his share by launching the project 2020Solidarity. The initiative brings together more than 40 international artists, including Marlene Dumas, Mark Lackey, Peter Berlin and Heji Shin, each designing a poster now being offered on different crowdfunding sites as a reward for a donation. In collaboration with West Contemporary, the famous photographer Mick Rock launched a fundraiser to provide FFP3 masks for Britain’s National Health Service. The gallery is currently offering rare works by Rock, but also artists such as Banksy, KAWS, Fin DAC, Ben Eine and more, with 20 percent of the profit from all sales going towards their #masksforNHS fundraiser. Damien Hirst created a new artwork titled Butterfly Rainbow, selling a limited edition of the work and donating all profits from the sales to the NHS, while Christie’s auctioned Andy Warhol photographs to support Andy Warhol Foundation’s emergency relief fund for artists. Also, more than 40 street artists joined together around the art campaign to support the fight against the virus. Titled Color4Action, the campaign will offer 40 coloring pages exclusively designed by great artists, donating proceeds to a range of associations and NGOs involved in the post-Covid emergencies.
Becoming embedded in our collective psyche, face masks are an artifact of the time. All across the world, many artists began making or designing them, either to give to those in need of them or to raise money via limited editions. Four of the U.K.’s leading contemporary artists — David Shrigley, Linder, Eddie Peake and Yinka Shonibare — have designed a series of limited-edition printed face masks to raise money for British artists and museums that have been impacted by the pandemic. The Chicago-based eCommerce company Threadless recently partnered with contemporary artists such as Rob Sheridan, Ron English, Alex Norris and Mukta Lata Barua to offer cloth face masks with lots of personality, with a portion of proceeds going to MedShare. Similarly, a San Francisco-based company Open Editions is offering masks by artists such as Elana Cooper, Margie Ramirez, Stephanie Syjuco and Charles Gute. For each mask purchased, they are donating another to local organizations in the San Francisco area. With a growing number of artists taking part in similar projects, the Cincinnati collector Sara Vance Waddell is in the process of organizing an exhibition of artist-made protective face masks, with more than 50 artists from across the country already enlisted in the effort.
Art Institutions in Step with the Times
The rapid shuttering of museums and galleries across the world due to the pandemic encouraged many institutions to be more proactive to innovate and expand new ways of staying connected with audiences whose needs could no longer be met in the physical space. The majority of museums and galleries around the world have moved their exhibitions into virtual viewing rooms and began offering a range of free content such as online art courses. J. Paul Getty Museum found a fun way to keep people engaged with their collection, challenging their social media followers to recreate iconic works of art with anything they can find at home while self-isolating. And the internet’s response did not disappoint.
While the majority of art museums and galleries remain closed, we have also seen the birth of the new ones. Created during the first days of quarantine in Spain by three friends who work as creatives in advertising agencies in Barcelona, the Covid Art Museum is the first virtual gallery dedicated to work born in confinement and quarantine. The works are covering everything from balconies, toilet paper, hand washing and face masks to fear, isolation and hope. Any artist from around the world is invited to submit the work for publication.
Another American art institution has realized that history is being made now. Amidst the pandemic, the curators of the Autry Museums of the American West have come together to devise an exciting archival project. As part of their project “Collecting Community History: A Regional Collections Initiative of Exploration and Preservation,” they are asking anyone to send images of objects that have taken on a particular significance during the quarantine period, such as face masks, recipes, home photos and journal entries. The museum posts the images on their blog, the Autry Files, and reaches out to the contributors in case they decide to physically acquire the object down the line.
All of these works and efforts paint an unprecedented moment in history, becoming part of the collective memory of where the world stood in the middle of the crisis. Art touches people in a way that words cannot. Now, in these challenging times, art should serve as a beacon of hope, escape, inspiration and solidarity.