At a construction site on the Lower East Side, there’s a set of posters far different than the rest: they show photographs of people kissing while wearing surgical masks. Art in the age of Covid-19? Perhaps. But also a call for unity as the nation faces pressure living under the weight of pandemic.
With New York City close to a full lockdown, a local photographer has sought to bring a message of love at a difficult time. The Act of Love is a street art campaign across Manhattan and Brooklyn created by Arina Voronova.
“While scientists are working on finding a cure for the virus, we, humans, can only spread love and support each other,” said Voronova.
While roughly 500 posters have already gone up, 500 more will be distributed across New York this month, according to the artist. She also hopes to shed a light on the discrimination that Asian Americans are experiencing at the moment.
“A lot of people won’t even walk through Chinatown right now,” she said. “What does Chinatown in New York City have to do with the virus, when you think about it? It could have started anywhere in the world, but people have this reaction.”
Many of the Chinese restaurants in Flushing, Queens, have reportedly lost 50% of their business since the news of Covid-19. Some Asian American New Yorkers have experienced hate crimes; one was attacked for wearing a face mask, in another case, a man sprayed a can of Febreze on another in the subway.
“When I walked into an Asian coffee shop the other day, nobody was there,” said Voronova. “The worker said: ‘It is what it is, we can’t do anything about that.’”
Jing Fong, the largest Chinese restaurant in New York’s Chinatown temporarily closed last week, while residents and business owners are worried about the long-term impact the discrimination will have on the community.
The virus doesn’t have a gender, race or nationality, Voronova stresses. “It’s everywhere,” she adds. “We can only remember we’re all human beings.”
It raises the importance of buying locally during the pandemic, rather than from large, corporate companies; from ordering takeout from family-run restaurants to getting toilet paper from bodegas.
“People, if you’re really freaking out, just support your local businesses,” said the artist. “It’s everyone’s choice how to act during a pandemic but be mindful of where and how you’re doing it.”
The social anxiety Americans are experiencing, she says, makes us miss out on simple but important things: “Support, love, kindness and tolerance,” she says. “The project is a reminder to all of us of what being a human is, being able to deal with the current world’s most significant problem with love and sympathy.”
It really started with the racism experienced by her Asian American friends. As a result, the artist went searching for face masks for her photo project. But after visiting 23 stores across New York, Voronova couldn’t find any, as there was a shortage (ordering online could involve a months-long wait). But in early February, she found masks in Flushing and hit the streets with her camera.
Voronova approached strangers on the streets, mainly couples, but also parents with their children, across several New York neighborhoods. She’d ask: “Do you want to participate in my project?” and offer them the masks to wear, “to support a global community.”
“I just wanted to get different people to show New York as the variety it is,” she adds, “all genders, relationships, skin color, all kind of love.”
There are over a dozen photos in the series, but Voronova plans on shooting more. There is a photo of a couple, both wearing navy blue, kissing at the High Line in Chelsea, while another shows a couple photographed in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In another shot, a pair of women kiss in Washington Square Park, while another shows a nanny in Brooklyn kissing a child in her care.
This project aims to add a different dimension to the Covid-19 numbers we see in the news. “I wanted to humanize it,” said Voronova. “The goal was to show love and positivity and support to all countries, including the US.”
It’s also part-social experiment. “I am curious about their possible reaction, the questions they may ask and the ideas they have about the current virus situation,” said Voronova.
Some of the portraits are the artist’s friends and neighbors. “It turned out most of them like the concept and many friends were happy to be a part of it,” she said.
“Most models said after our shoot, ‘we’re happy to be a part of the change,’” she adds.
COVER PHOTO: The Act of Love by Arina Voronova. Photograph: Courtesy of Arina Voronova