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How I made The Hong Konger Wall for the Affordable Art Fair mural


Photo by Miguel Candela | miguelcandela.com


I take anonymous questions about work, art, and chronic illness via NGL and answer one a week in a blog post. This week's question was about the mural wall I made for the Affordable Art Fair. It asked:


"I saw your mural at the Affordable Art Fair and wanted to know more about how you made it. How did you come up with the idea and how did you pick who got to be on it?"


How it all started


I signed with Young Soy Gallery earlier in 2022 to exhibit six of my favourite Collector’s Prints at the Affordable Art Fair. In the build-up to the Fair, Shivang, one of Young Soy’s co-founders, asked if I wanted to do one of the murals for the event. I said yes and pitched a few ideas, which Shivang then took to the Affordable Art Fair. We went with The Hong Konger Wall.



The idea was a development of an earlier Hong Konger print I made called Take Heart. The backstory is that the New Yorker magazine always publishes an artwork of or inspired by Eustace Tilley every issue closest to February 21 to celebrate the magazine’s birthday. You may not recognise Tilley’s name, but you’ll know his likeness. He’s the guy in the New Yorker magazine’s logo who is in profile holding a monocle up to a butterfly.



The Hong Konger print Take Heart reimagined the pose as a finger heart held in profile by nine Hong Konger caricatures. My pitch for the mural was to draw a grid of actual Hong Kongers doing the finger heart as a way to galvanise the community and get participants excited about creating art and the upcoming Fair.


By the time we decided on this idea, I had just two months to draw 216 and complete the wall. The game was afoot!


How I crowdsourced photos


It was a joke at my old job as a Product Manager that I loved nothing more than Airtable. It’s like Excel but more aesthetic and easier to use as a database. I use it for everything in work and life, so of course I was going to use it for this project.


First, I asked my cousins and family to submit photos of themselves via my newly set-up website to test out the user experience. I drew them as examples of what portraits would look like, then started putting calls out over email and social media. Anyone who identified as a Hong Konger was encouraged to submit a photo of themselves for me to draw.

This is my cousin Adam. His was the first portrait I drew for the Wall as an example.


How I drew 216 people in 1.5 months


At first, drawing portraits would take me about an hour each, but I got better at it and soon broke the whole process down into four stages which expedited the work. I sketched in pencil, did base colours, added in details, then did highlights and lowlights. A month in, I was finishing portraits in 20 to 30 minutes (unless they had very complicated shirts, which is a whole other story).


In order to get all the portraits done in time for printing, I calculated (using Airtable!) that I’d need to draw four portraits a day every single day (weekends included!) for one and a half months. I fell behind by a day twice but would overcompensate by doing more than four on days when I felt like it. It wasn’t as stressful as it sounds. I found it weirdly cathartic. I guess some people journal or meditate or exercise every day. My thing became drawing strangers!


How I shared the portraits


Every week or so, I’d export all the portraits I had made in and post them to my website for downloading and social media for sharing, viewing, and hopefully convincing more people to submit photos.


I would also email the subjects of the batch of portraits with links to where they could download and find themselves. This was the best because I was emailing from my own email (sophia@sophiahotung.com) and many people replied. I ended up making some great friends with new Hong Kongers, which wasn’t part of the plan but was wonderful, nonetheless.



How I tackled diversity and representation


I didn’t get a huge amount of photos to draw in the beginning. Perhaps one to three trickled in every day with a slightly larger influx every now and then. As is always the case with these things, the big influx of photos came in during the last few days before the July 1 deadline and the week after the deadline.


By this point, I had to get more discerning about who to include. The diversity of the Wall’s subjects was important to me. I wanted to make sure every Hong Konger identified with someone on the Wall, but I also wanted to make sure every Hong Konger on the Wall was real and not someone I made up to tick a box.


I had to get selective, which I felt bad about, because people had taken the time to submit and now weren’t going to see themselves, but in the end, it was in the name of representation. While I’m not 100% happy with the representation — for instance, I’m aware that no one is wearing a hijab or turban on the Wall — I still feel that a diverse group of Hong Kongers came through, and that I did my best to market the project to different communities.


Getting press coverage before the event


My 2019 stint working in a crisis communications firm and my four years at my college newspaper got me in the groove to write and disseminate a press release about the project to local newspapers, blogs, and magazines. The Hong Konger Wall got picked up by the South China Morning Post's Young Post, the Beat, and Localiiz. I also thought the mural would be a cool cover for the South China Morning Post's Sunday Post Magazine, so I made a mock-up of what it could look like and pitched it in a cold email to the mag's editor. I didn't hear back for a while, so was surprised to see the Arts Editor pop up in my inbox. We did a quick interview call and the cover came out the weekend before the Affordable Art Fair!



Meeting the actual Hong Kongers


During the Affordable Art Fair, I’d creepily hover around the mural, watching people interact with it and trying to recognise people I had drawn. 93% of the time, no one cared who I was, but 6% of the time, people would come up to me to talk about the art!


My favourite thing about these interactions was realising who was connected to whom. When submissions came in at the same time, I never knew if the two people submitting photos were doing so from opposite sides of Hong Kong or from the opposite sides of their sofa. I met mother-daughter duos that I didn’t realise were connected but suddenly saw resemblances between. I met couples who I didn’t realise were couples. On a more awkward note, I met a family whose mum didn't make it onto the wall, because I needed to counter the large amount of women's submissions I received with more men. I hadn’t realised until I saw the whole family together that I had drawn this woman's sons and husband but not her! Whoops! :\


Making Heart Times, the Hong Konger print featuring all 216 faces


While it’s free to download portraits from my website, I haven't yet found a way to print all 216 individual portraits sustainably. Instead, I've made Heart Times, a new Hong Konger print featuring all the faces that appeared on the mural. It's available as a HK $350 open series print from the Lion Rock Press and as larger limited series Gallery (1/30) and Collector's Prints (1/1). Order a print of Heart Times here.


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