When Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who blew the whistle on the coronavirus, died last February in the hospital he had been working in to fight the pandemic, Chinese all over the country and the world mourned his death. They also expressed anger toward the Chinese government. More than anything, his death was seen by many as a symbol of government inaction and of the price paid by the country’s health workers.
Weeks later, in a church in the central Hubei Province where the pandemic started, a large mural by artist Duyi Han pays homage to these health workers’ efforts, and what they have come to represent for many Chinese people. Titled “The Saints Wear White,” the work evokes the biblical frescos and chapel ceilings of the Italian High Renaissance, imbuing its medical workers — seen in their white decontamination suits — as quasi-religious figures.
“I wanted to celebrate the anonymous doctors and nurses who are crucial in helping those infected,” Han told VICE, sitting in the Shanghai hotel where he was quarantined after returning to China from New York.
“They risk their own lives and work long shifts, often having to skip meals and sleep on the hospital floor. They are those whom people rely on and put their faith in. They are heroes who deserve higher regard.”
Han grew up in Shanghai, but moved to the United States to study architecture at Cornell University. While he previously worked in a prestigious architecture firm, he is now the creative director of the design studio Doesn’t Come Out. With the collective, he helps artists find inspiration from past works and express them through various mediums. In “The Saints Wear White,” he channelled one of his artistic passions, that of frescos.
“Although I’m not religious, I love the beauty of this art form [fresco],” Han explained. “I choose to use these religious architectural and art forms to celebrate and advocate for secular life-savers.”
Han is the first to recognise that churches are not generally associated with China. However, in Wuhan they represent one of the many layers of the city’s rich history, and are the remaining trace of external influences dating back to the 19th century.
“A church in China may challenge stereotypical cultural assumptions and guide people to focus more on the medical workers and not the country itself as an exotic entity,” Han observed, of foreign perceptions. “Especially at a time when the disease invokes racism and xenophobia.”
The project is still in its 3D imaging stage, but Han and his studio are planning to carry out the physical work in Wuhan as soon as it’s allowed. The city also holds a special significance for Han, as the home of his grandparents.
“Creating this work, especially the oil painting version, felt like a spiritual experience,” he explained. “Being emotionally connected to health workers and trying to help my family, but also as an alternative reality, as in the U.S. not many people seemed to care at the time [late January].”
Ultimately, Han said he hopes the work will be emotionally moving for people around the world, encouraging them to “unite together.”
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