Re-imagining Historical Photographs: Paintings by Lorna Simpson and Cheung Sze-lit

Lorna Simpson; Three Figures – detail view (2014, ink and screenprint on 12 clayboard panels); Venice Biennale 2015

In the two works featured on this page, the artists have taken existing photographs as their inspiration.

Three Figures by Lorna Simpson

Before I describe the background of this artwork, I would like you to take a look at the two images of this painting and think about your own response. What is going on in the picture? What is the painting about? What feelings does the painting evoke?

Lorna Simpson; Three Figures (2014, ink and screenprint on 12 clayboard panels); Venice Biennale 2015

Three Figures was created by African-American artist Lorna Simpson. She created a screen print of an existing photograph and then painted over the print with ink to create the final work. In an interview with Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, the artist describes the background of the work:

It is actually based on an AP news photo…a famous image from the civil rights era of three individuals, I think two women and one man, being hosed down by police..with a fire hose….while they are trying to hold hands.

For me, that image is an iconic image within the civil rights era; it also, in terms of the way that it looks to me, looks like three dancers….Certainly these kind of outstretched hands and the gestural quality of the bodies could suggest many different things and there’s a certain beauty and grace to that, but the reality of what the image is is kind of contradictory to me…. It’s a kind of description of the kind of violence during the civil rights movement against the protesters….

It depends on one’s vocabulary of visuals from a particular time period of American history if one picks up on it as a protest image or as something else.

The Modern Arts Notes Podcast No. 270: Lorna Simpson

The actual photo can be seen here:

The last sentence in the quote from Lorna Simpson is quite important. If you are familiar with the photo, you will likely interpret the painting in the context of the civil rights movement or in the context of protests in general. Nevertheless, with the three rather small and isolated figures people joining hands in solidarity to face some kind of undefined and violent maelstrom in front of them, the theme of courage and solidarity in the face of violent oppression can come though even if the viewer is unfamiliar with the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s.

I asked a couple of people in Hong Kong who are in their early twenties (and who would therefore be unlikely to be familiar with the imagery of the American civil rights movement) to briefly interpret the painting, and these are their responses.

TN: I think there is a couple walking on a bridge, close to a waterfall. It seems that there is a girl on the left who looks quite worried and seems to have lost something in the water, but there is a third person like a man on the right, who is like holding on to them. I think this piece of work brings me feelings like the world is falling apart. People are trying to hold on to each other, while losing something they treasure in their life.

WW: I see the first pic as  three people helping each other to go across a bridge from somewhere to somewhere while the condition is a bit dangerous while the girl at the end is trying to look for someone else she can also offer a helping hand to..

ML: The figure of the man is trying to hold back the woman, who is searching for something, or they are trying to cross probably a river or flooded area. The column on the right is hung downward a bit (if those panels were put back into position, there would be three people holding hands together), but now what I see is that the man on the right-hand side is probably the past/future shadow of the middle man. 

The interpretations share some common characteristics: the people in the painting are facing a kind of dangerous and/or challenging situation, and all three interpretations present the scene as part of a larger story.  Two  interpretations include a sense of helping, while the other refers to ‘holding back’ (which could also be a way of trying to help). Interestingly, all three interpretations included searching for someone or something. In the original photo, the three protesters are not physically searching for anything, but the quest for equal rights could itself be considered a kind of search to recover that which has been lost— freedom, dignity, equality.

Mini-bio: Lorna Simpson is influential African-American multimedia artist. She was born in New York in 1960. As a teenager, she attended the the High School of Art and Design and took summer courses at at the Art Institute of Chicago. She traveled extensively before studying photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and fine art at the University of California, San Diego. During the 1980s, she became well known for her works with photographs and text that explored themes of  gender, identity, culture, history and memory. She lives in New York and her work is displayed in museums around the world.

A Quiet Box by Cheung Sze-lit

Cheung Sze-lit; A Quiet Box: Paintings 4, 5 and 6 (Oil Painting); Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift)

A Quiet Box is a series of six oil paintings by Chinese artist Cheung Sze-lit (張施烈). Again, before reading about the background take at three of the images from the series and think of your own response to the paintings.What is going on in the series? What is it it about? What feelings does it evoke?

Cheung Sze-lit; A Quiet Box: Painting No. 2 (Oil Painting); Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift)
Cheung Sze-lit; A Quiet Box: Painting No. 3 (Oil Painting); Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift)
Painting No. 6 (detail view)

The paintings are based on a series of photographs of a nuclear bomb test that show how a typical house would be destroyed by the blast wave. The original photographs were taken in 1953 and are described in this Wired article: Nuclear Blasts Show Terrifying Power. The house was actually a couple of miles away from the center of the blast!

In his work based on photographs, Cheung Sze-lit is focusing on trying to bring out the aspects of that photo which create a personal connection to the viewer. He explains that this approach is based on Roland Barthe’s ideas about interpreting photographs. In his book Camera Lucida, Barthe’s argues that there are two main ways of interpreting a photo. One way is based on cultural, linguistic and political interpretations (which he calls ‘the studium’) and the other way, the approach which Cheung Sze-lit is focusing on, concerns the details of the photo which the viewer reacts or connects to on a much more personal level (which Barth calls ‘the punctum’).

For example, based on Lorna Simpson’s interview,  it appears that the thing that gave her a personal connection to the original photo of the three protesters (i.e., the punctum) was the contrast between the graceful movement of the three figures in the photo and the violent oppression they faced, and this is what is brought out in her painting.

When I saw the images in A Quiet Box, I immediately recognized them as photos of a nuclear test. I am pretty sure I first saw the photos that inspired the painting when I was growing up in Canada during the 70s or early 80s. At that time, for people in Canada, a country sandwiched between two nuclear superpowers—the USA and the Soviet Union—that were in the middle of a decades-long cold war, the prospect of getting caught in the middle of a nuclear holocaust was a very real concern. It wasn’t something that kept kids awake at night, but it was a thought that might sit there in the back of your mind. Therefore, for me, the images in A Quiet Place were instantly recognizable and evoked a strange sort of nostalgia, a mostly-forgotten old anxiety of the possibility of being annihilated in a nuclear war.

The choice of a house as the subject of the test (and as the subject of the photographs and paintings) is important in that a house represents civilians, it represents family and it represents protection. The destruction of a house emphasizes that it is the innocents who will suffer in a nuclear attack and it shows how vulnerable we all are. The house, built to protect us and shelter our families, withstands the combined force of the blast (the force of the shock wave, the powerful blast winds that accompany it and the thermal pulse) for just a fraction of a second before being blown apart in a spectacular explosion.

The image I found most striking was the one with roiling black smoke against the wall of the house. The smoke reminded me of something in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke—the monstrous dark writhing infection that drove the boar god mad.

Again, I asked people for their interpretations:

TN: I suppose that there is some kind of weird fire or devilish stuff that tries to conquer the world… since it is spreading all over the world; it also burns down a house. One thing i can’t understand is about the match in front of the house. The match’s shadow was like a woman in one painting. It became shiny and bright when the house was all on fire… I think this series is quite scary—feelings of danger, desperation, darkness, horror… and just a little hope.

WW: I think it is something like a progression of erosion of darkness to the place. As if by the end the place has been completely destroyed.

ML: For the second series the strokes were a bit horrifying, so I dared not to stare for long at night (so I will just discuss  what I glimpsed).  I saw a time-lapse during which a house burns down. Was there a shifting in ‘figure-ground’ with the white house engulfed by the blackness versus the white fire and the black remaining?  The horror comes in with the distorted strokes and (suspicious human faces?) hidden under the stokes. 

Though none of the viewers recognized it as a nuclear test, they all noted the process of destruction and commented on the blackness and/or brightness. It seems that even though the viewers did not know exactly what the subject matter was, they were all able to sense in the paintings the violent destructiveness and horrifying nature of an atomic bomb blast

One interesting thing is that it seems that the other viewers took more time than I did to look into things like brushstrokes, minor details and the interplay between light and darkness. Perhaps that is an advantage of not knowing exactly what the subject matter of an art work is—the viewer may be encouraged to examine the painting in more detail in order to come up with an interpretation.

The solo exhibition show pictured here was organized by the A-lift gallery ( as part of Fotanian 2014 event (the Fotanian is an art studio open day showcasing the artists operating in the industrial neighborhood of Fotan in Hong Kong: (

At the exhibition, some of the artist’s initial notes, sketches and drafts were also on show.

Cheung Sze-lit; preliminary sketches for the oil painting series ‘A Quiet Box’
Preliminary sketches
Cheung Sze-lit; the artist’s notes for his oil painting series ‘A Quiet Box’
The artist’s notes
The artist’s notes

The artist was also on hand to describe his work.

Artist Cheung Sze-lit discusses his oil painting series ‘A Quiet Box’ with Veron; Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift). . Photo by longzijun.
Artist Cheung Sze-lit discusses his oil painting series ‘A Quiet Box’ with Veron; Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift)

Mini-bio: Cheung Sze-lit is a Hong Kong-based artist. He studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University. He specializes in figurative paintings, sketches and drawings.

Go Further

This section includes discussion questions, an art challenge and links to online photo galleries and websites.

Artist Websites


Higher resolution images (e.g. 2048 x 1365) can be viewed online at:

Three Questions

  1. How closely did your own interpretations of the subject matter of the paintings correspond to the actual scenes depicted in the original photographs?
  2. The paintings are quite similar to the original photographs. To what extent where the artists able to bring out the key elements of the photographs and create something entirely new? How was this achieved?
  3. In Three Figures, the three panels on the right have been shifted down. What is the effect/meaning of that?

Art Challenge

Find a photo by someone else that resonates with you. Create a drawing or painting based on the photo. Try to bring out the elements of the photo that led you to have such a powerful response

~ text and photos by longzijun


Return to Artjouer’s Gallery of Artists

Piscatorial Pictorials: Paintings of Fish

Let’s see how eight artists capture the same subject—fish—in their paintings. The artists are Yuji Kanamaru, Annabelle Marquis, Aries Wu, Spencer Lau, Takahide Komatsu, Andrew Tomkins, Camille Henrot and Szabotage.

1. Yuji Kanamaru: Visitor from the Past – Pirarucu

Visitor From the Past : Pirarucu by Yuji Kanamaru
Yuji Kanamaru; Visitor From the Past – Pirarucu – detail view (mixed media on board); Art Central 2016 (Whitestone Gallery)

Yuji Kanamaru’s art focuses on animals and buildings—with fish and elephants being popular subjects. The type of fish in the painting is a pirarucu (also known as arapaima), a very large fish that can grow to up to three metres in length and can weigh up to 150 kilograms. It is native to the Amazon and is one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. Fossils very similar to this fish have been found that date back to the middle of the Miocene period, making this fish, as the title of the painting states, a visitor from the past.

Title: Visitor From the Past - Pirarucu (Detail View); Artist Yuji Kanamaru; Mixed media on board; Art Central (Whitestone Gallery). Photo by longzijun.
Visitor From the Past – Pirarucu (detail view)

This detail view of the painting shows how the artist uses blotchy brushstrokes, lack of perspective, grid-like lines, earthy colors and swatches of different kinds of canvas to give his paintings an aged, ancient feel and an appearance that seems part patchwork fabric, part map and part illustration.

Mini-bio: Japanese artist Yuji Kanamaru was born in 1978 in Kanagawa and attended the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (studying under Masataka Oyabu and Chinami Nakajima). His paintings, often of towns and/or animals, have an exotic and nostalgic feel to them.

You can see more of Yuji Kanamaru’s work at the Whitestone Gallery site:

2. Annabelle Marquis: NewCalypso

Newcalypso by Annabelle Marquis;
Annabelle Marquis; Newcalpyso (acrylic and collage on canvas); Affordable Art Fair HK 2016 (Arteria Gallery)

Like Yuji Kanamaru, Montreal-based artist Annabelle Marquis combines paint (in this case acrylics) and other materials to create a kind of collage. The effect, however, is quite different. In Yuji Kanamaru’s works the combination of fabric and paint creates a rustic, patchwork feel, while in the paintings of Annabelle Marquis, the paint and materials are blended together to create a shimmery, more vibrant feel. You can see her technique in the following video:

Mini-bio: Canadian artist Annabelle Marquis was born in Montreal in 1979 and studied at Cégep de Saint-Laurent and le Collège Ahuntsic. She worked for several years as a designer and illustrator before devoting herself to painting. She is known for her colorful, expressive collages.

You can find out more at the artist’s website:

3. Takahide Komatsu: Swimming up -Minnow-

Takahide Komatsu; Swimming up -Minnow- (2018, acrylic on canvas); Art Central 2018 (Gallery Kogure)

This is a series of minimalist paintings by Japanese artist Takahide Komatsu that simply shows tiny fish swimming upstream. The artist is concentrating solely on the shape of the fish and the flow of the water. This style is much more minimalist than much of the artist’s other work, which tends to make use of gold and silver leaf and which features more detailed and more colorful depictions of butterflies and fish.

Takahide Komatsu; Swimming up -Minnow- (2018, acrylic on canvas); Art Central 2018 (Gallery Kogure)
Swimming up -Minnow- (detail view)

Mini-bio: Japanese artist Takahide Komatsu was born in Miyazaki in 1979 and studied at the Fuji Art Laboratory and Yamamoto Art Studio before attending the Artist Course, Kyusyu Designer Gakuin.

You can see more of Takahide Komatsu’s work at:

4. Szabotage: Koi Tag

Koi fish tag by Szabotage (Sheung Wan, HK). Photo by longzijun

Street artist Szabotage’s tag (a kind of graffiti signature) is a koi fish leaping out of the water. In an interview with TimeOut magazine, the artist explains the background behind this choice:

Originally, I asked a local restaurant owner if I could paint a side of his wall. They asked to see my designs and to sketch a fish. So I drew a koi fish for them. After almost 10 different sketches, which the restaurant owner all rejected, they questioned whether he could actually draw fish. “I was really taken aback by it and it really annoyed me. I bit my tongue and, in defence, I started to paint koi fish around the area. That’s how it started and now I draw it everywhere. It was a time of my life where I was very sensitive about what people said about me and my work….The koi jumping out of water is jumping out of its comfort zone, from water to air. It is enjoyment, it’s invigorating. There’s a sense of jubilation and freedom in its movement.

Hong Kong street artist Szabotage on the negative connotations surrounding graffiti art
Koi fish tag by Szabotage (Sheung Wan, HK). Photo by longzijun

Mini-bio: Szabotage is the alias of street artist Gustav Szabo. He used to work as a designer and architect. Originally hailing from the street-art-rich neighborhood of Shoreditch in London, Szabotage has he recently relocated to Hong Kong.

You can see more of the artist’s work at his website:

5. Aries Wu: Untitled

Artist: Aries Wu (Aries Art Studio); Fotanian (2014). Photo by longzijun.
Aries Wu; photo taken at Fotanian 2014 (Aries Art Studio). Photo by longzijun.

Aries (胡浚諺) is a young Hong Kong artist who focuses on realistic paintings and sketches of everyday objects, his work drawing the viewers’ attention to the visual poetry of the world around them. In Hong Kong, steamed or fried whole fish is a common dish at dinner. In this painting, two silver and black colors and curved lines of the two fish contrast with the grid of white tiles of a typical Hong Kong kitchen counter.

Mini-bio: Aries Wu was born in Hong Kong and studied at the Royal Institute of Technology (in the Department of Pure Arts) in Melbourne, Australia before returning to Hong Kong and setting up the Aries Art Studio. He used to work more with sketches, but he now specializes in oil painting. 

For more information, about the artist, you can visit his website:

6. Spencer Luk: Untitled

Untitled (2013) by Spencer Luk (1816 Studio); Fotanian 2014. Photo by longzijun.
Spencer Luk; Untitled (2013); Fotanian 2014 (1816 Studio)

Visiting Spencer Luk’s (Luk Ho-sun) studio during the Fotanian open day, I was struck by the wide range of styles and media on display. His work ranges from realistic life drawings to cartoon-like figures of commuters to more abstract paintings like Untitled (shown above). Even in his abstract work, the inspiration can be seen bubbling up towards the surface. In Untitled, for example, the colors, sense of movement and light are based on swimming goldfish.

The photos of the paintings of Spencer Luk and Aries Wu were taken at Fotanian (, a weekend art festival when artists in the industrial district of Fotan in Hong Kong open their doors to the public.

Mini-bio: Spencer Luk is a Hong Kong artist, interior designer and lifestyle consultant. He originally studied and trained in the field of furniture design (at the Hong Kong School Of Interior & Furniture Design and at the Morrison Hill Technical Institute), before taking a series of workshops and courses ranging from Western-style painting to architectural perspective & rendering at various institutions in Hong Kong and overseas). 

7. Camille Henrot: Study for Big Fish Small Fish

Artist: Camille Henrot; Title: Study for Big Fish Small Fish (2015); Watercolor on paper; Art Basel Hong Kong (Gallery: Metro Pictures). Photo by longzijun.
Camille Henrot; Study for Big Fish Small Fish (2015, watercolor on paper); Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 (Metro Pictures)

The painting is from a series of simple, almost-cartoonish watercolors by French artist Camille Henrot that is meant to show inequity and injustice in mythology and modern life.

Mini-bio: Camille Henrot was born in Paris in 1978 and is now based in New York. She studied film animation at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Her body of work is extremely varied and includes sketches, paintings, videos, sculptures and installations.

You can see more of the artist’s work at her website:

8. Andrew Tomkins: Panel No.3

Andrew Tomkins; Panel 3 (2018, ink, enamel and crayon on polyester ); Art Central 2018 (Art Atrium)

In this work, Australian artist Andrew Tomkins portrays goldfish swimming in a Japanese-style pond. The image is created by painting over intricate patters of hand-cut polyester paper patterns. The paper is then arranged on different planes, giving the painting a sense of depth and also helping to create a sense of sunlight on water.

Mini-bio: Australian artist Andrew Tomkins was born in 1955 and originally trained as a builder and surveyor before attending Julian Ashton Art School. In his earlier work, he focused on painting, while his more recent work tends to involve mixed media (involving paint and cutting polyester paper). Throughout his career, however, his art has mainly focused on nature and the environment.

You can see more of the artist’s work on the Art Atrium website:

9. Li Geng Nin: Childhood Memories #2

Li Geng Min: Childhood memories #2 (Oil on canvas; Art WeMe Contemporary Gallery; Affordable Art Fair 2019)

Here is a more surrealistic take on a Goldfish by Chinese artist Li Geng Min This vibrantly-colored work, with its pair of pandas riding a giant flying goldfish, evokes childhood imagination.

Mini-bio: Chinese artist is based in Shenzen. Li graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in Department of Education and then from 2001 to 2006 worked as a design illustrator.

You can see more of the artist’s work on the Art WeMe website:李耿民/

Go Further

This section includes links to online photo galleries, discussion questions and an art challenge.


Higher resolution images (e.g. 2048 x 1365) can be viewed online at:

Three Questions

  1. Which of the fish paintings do you like best? Why?
  2. It seems that fish are quite popular among painters! Why is that?
  3. What ideas can fish represent or symbolize?

Art Challenge

Draw, sketch or paint a fish!

~ text and photos by longzijun


Return to Artjouer’s Gallery of Artists