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'The creation of #physicaldistancing': How street art is responding to COVID-19

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A new wave of graffiti is taking the walls of Melbourne with street artists using their creativity to not just depict the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on everyday life, but also to spread the essential message to help curb the spread of the virus.

While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down almost every aspect of life as we knew it until the virus took hold, street artists have responded to the contagion as they respond to any other situation - by making street art. 

“We paint what we know, and right now we live and breathe the pandemic”, says Melbourne artist Amanda Newman.

 "The Whistle-Giver"
'The Whistle-Giver' by Amanda Newman
Courtesy of AmandaNewmanArt

Her mural ‘The Whistle-Giver’, in Westgarth, in Melbourne's inner north depicts Chinese doctor Ai Fen who directed the emergency department of Central Hospital of Wuhan and was one of the first medical personnel to disclose the existence of the coronavirus to authorities.

“She was silenced by her hospital and the Chinese government and has subsequently disappeared,” Ms Newman says. 

“She is a great inspiration because she showed tremendous courage in speaking up in a country that is known for censorship. If her voice had been heard, the pandemic may not have ever happened.”

Melbourne's Murals and Interior Design, Black Rock, Melbourne
Melbourne's Murals and Interior Design, Black Rock, Melbourne
https://www.facebook.com/MelbournesMurals/

In Blackrock in Melbourne's southeast, another mural has been dedicated to the ‘heroes’ of the pandemic - the medical personnel fighting the virus.

‘Frontline heroes’ features a health worker depicted as Atlas- a titan from the Greek Mythology who was condemned to hold the world on his shoulders - with angel-like wings, standing on the virus.

“It was our way of saying thank you to all the people working on the frontline. We thought it would be nice to spread the love and gratitude for all the hard work they are doing,” say Melissa Turner and Brigitte Dawson, from Melbourne’s Murals and Interior Design, who created the artwork.

“We created artworks on this pandemic as tribute murals to send messages of hope, gratitude and reminders to the world,” the artist duo says.

Melissa Turner and Brigitte Dawson with their creation 'Fearless'.
"Be fearless in knowing we will overcome this fight." Melissa Turner and Brigitte Dawson with their creation 'Fearless'.
Supplied

Associate professor at Swinburne's School of Design, Flavia Marcello says street artists make good use of things that are in people's subconscious mind.

“When I saw the image in Black Rock, I thought the artists played around two ideas - a saving angel from the Christian tradition and the Atlas, a part of the pagan tradition.

"This is something street artists do very often. They use references to things we know- even though we don’t know that we do- images that are part of our culture or education that we can immediately understand and resonate with at a deeper level.”

Ms Turner and Ms Dawson lately revealed another project, called ‘The Creation of #physicaldistancing’ in South Melbourne. A take on the masterpiece ‘The creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo where the figures of God and the first man instead of almost touching each other’s hands - as in the Renaissance fresco - are at a safe social distance.

The creation of #physicaldistancing.
The creation of #physicaldistancing.
Supplied

“In times of great uncertainty, it’s refreshing when we can turn to creativity and the power of art to help reiterate the importance of remaining safe and doing our part to flatten the COVID-19 curve”, the artists say.

We created artworks on this pandemic as tribute murals to send messages of hope, gratitude and reminders to the world

The project resulted from their collaboration with the City of Port Phillip Council.

“Both physical distancing and social connection are important at this time of unprecedented change,” Mayor Bernadene Voss told SBS Italian. 

“We felt a creative visual reminder of the need for social distancing would be an effective way to communicate with our South Melbourne community. The mural based on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and reimagined for the current crisis conveys the message that while we currently need physical distancing, there is still a human need for social connection.”

Not far, another image inspired by the pandemic emerged using not only a different technique but a completely different register. 'Don't Panic' by graffiti artist skubzmope in Prahran Square, addresses the first weeks of the pandemic and the toilet paper shortage in Australia.

 Our cities’ walls are very important because they are spaces where political ideas can still be expressed

“The early days were nuts. It was so shocking to see this sudden change in people, it was like the panic itself had become contagious,” skubzmope explains.

“I could feel it in myself, this fear, but I think mine was more a fear of people than of the virus. I wanted to confront that feeling, so I poked fun at it, laughed at it and I enabled other people to do that too.”

“To take a step back and laugh at themselves and hopefully ease those negative feelings a little,” says the artist.

Professor Marcello says while these artworks are important from an artistic point of view, they are also significant as a means of expression at a grassroots level. 

“Our cities’ walls are very important because they are spaces where political ideas can still be expressed,” she says.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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