Claudia Chanhoi is used to being censored. After all, she makes Instagram-unfriendly art. 

Her social media pages are peppered with breasts, bums, penises and vaginas, sometimes euphemistically presented, sometimes explicitly so, but always in a highly stylised aesthetic that favours bold colours and bolder lines. 

A piece by Claudia Chanhoi that explores dating in the digital age. Photo: Claudia Chanhoi.

Suggestive subject matter is a Chanhoi signature, regardless of whether she is delving into the disposable nature of contemporary dating or discussing whether we can disassociate body parts from sexual content, and it frequently brings her into censors’ line of fire. 

“My work used to be censored and taken down from social media a lot because I often feature genitals in my art,” Chanhoi told HKFP. “Even though I feel it’s far from explicit… my work still got censored,” she continued, adding that it left her feeling “confused” and “a little bit attacked as a creative.” 

“Why is my art shameful or offensive to others, while we see sexualised images of women pretty much everywhere?”

Rather than bend to the puritanical will of Behance, Facebook and Instagram, Chanhoi doubled down. “This is why I have been constantly doing lots of work with genitals or work about sexualisation, because to me, it was a bit like a protest,” she said. 

Hong Kong artist Claudia Chanhoi. Photo: Claudia Chanhoi.

Her frank approach to sex and sexual organs is also rooted in rebellion. “I grew up in a very conservative environment, because I was born Catholic and I also went to Catholic school,” Chanhoi said. “I feel like the fact that I am so interested in talking about [sexuality] is just because I couldn’t.”

Born in Hong Kong, Chanhoi’s career as an artist took off while she was at art school in Britain. “Everything came from my university projects,” she said, which were largely focused on the sexual objectification of women. 

At the same time, she was learning about her area of study outside of the institution. “I feel like I was constantly seen as a foreign object in the UK,” she said, adding that she has always felt safer in Hong Kong. “People would cat call me and I would get a lot of comments on the way I look… and also being an Asian woman was… I wouldn’t say a scary thing but I always felt like it was quite a dangerous body to be in.” 

London, Chanhoi said, has progressed since then. Her conservative hometown, however, has not. 

“I feel like the world has changed a lot… in Hong Kong, we are still, let’s say, 10 years behind.” 

An illustration by Claudia Chanhoi for Swedish sex toy brand Lelo. Photo: Claudia Chanhoi.

Chanhoi has worked with Swedish sex toy brand Lelo, which surveyed Hongkongers’ attitudes to sex and extras in 2021 and found that 52 per cent of respondents were not open to using sex toys, saying they believed them to be perverted or were afraid of how their partner may react. Despite believing Hong Kong to be buttoned up, Chanhoi said she was “still quite surprised” to discover how many people held that opinion. 

“In 2022… we see sexualised images all the time but when it comes to exploring our sexuality we’re just so, I don’t know, scared of it or ashamed of it,” Chanhoi said. “Like it’s taboo to talk about it – which it shouldn’t be – because we see ‘sex sells’ everywhere. I just don’t understand where that perspective comes from.”

“We’re not supposed to be born with shame.” Chanhoi said she believed it was learned behaviour, perhaps from being told not to talk about our genitals as children or being encouraged to address sexual organs by alternative names. “But then you begin to learn that there’s something wrong with them, they must be something bad,” she said. “This is how we learn that… some of our body parts can be shameful.”

Chanhoi explores and subverts this sense of shame in her work, which puts genitals front and centre, always in a playful way. In one diptych pinned to the top of her Instagram page, a cartoonish clitoris appears alongside a pair of testes, a pubic area complete with pubic hair, an Adam’s apple and hairy legs. In the caption, she asks: “Can we start (de)sexualising [body parts] and look at them without shame and disgust?”

One of Claudia Chan’s pieces that was recently removed from a social media platform. Photo: Claudia Chanhoi.

Although allowed to remain on Instagram, the images were recently removed from Adobe’s portfolio-style platform Behance. 

“They just said something like, nudity is not allowed,” Chanhoi said, her detached tone revealing how familiar she is with this response. “You know, obviously… But there’s no nudity. This is what my art is all about, right, playing around with [that] idea.”

“I am used to being censored so I like to add a little something to see if that will be censored.” 

On a more serious note, though, Chanhoi said she believed something was amiss in the way we see – or rather do not see – our sexual organs portrayed in the media. “We can’t really separate sexualisation and body parts. Because we associate them with something like porn, but it is not always like that,” she said. 

“Lots of Instagrammers post pictures of them being super sexy and super sexualised, but once a genital is featured, it becomes like, ‘oh my god, that’s so unacceptable we should take it down or remove it’,” Chanhoi continued. “It’s just really interesting that one tiny little genital could change so much when we pretty much see soft porn everywhere in the media, or TV shows.” 

A piece by Claudia Chanhoi called Shame Shame. Photo: Claudia Chanhoi.

After four years overseas, Chanhoi returned to Hong Kong – a city which, at least at first, was slow to catch on to her provocative style. “I felt, at the time, people would not be happy with my work, especially in a place like Hong Kong,” she said. 

But “that completely changed because of Apple Daily,” she said. In 2019, the pro-democracy tabloid – which has since been forced to shutter after top executives were arrested under Hong Kong’s national security law and its newsroom was raided by police – interviewed her. 

That interview “changed the game completely,” Chanhoi said. “Their audience was huge, crazily huge. I mean, to be honest, I was not really an Apple Daily reader, but it was so sad to see it shut down like that.” 

Overnight, Chanhoi said she started being approached by Hong Kong-based clients, and found herself with new, Hong Kong-based followers. 

Photo: Claudia Chanhoi.

Chanhoi left her job as a brand design manager earlier this year to dedicate herself to her art full-time. Still, she said, she often hears that her work is “a bit too much” or brands will ask her to “not include the genitals,” while saying “we still want you to draw something about sexuality.” 

Most often, the clients expressing such hesitations were those in Hong Kong, Chanhoi said, adding that most of her commissions came from overseas. 

“It’s just a little bit more conservative here when it comes to sexuality and body parts.” 

“In Hong Kong, being an artist can be quite difficult,” she said, adding that she did not see Beijing’s plan to position the city as a cultural hub helping emerging artists such as herself. “Not personally and not professionally,” she answered when asked whether the opening of M+ and other planned museums might have a trickle-down effect on the local art ecosystem.

Regardless, Chanhoi is keeping busy. She will be speaking on genitals and taboos at the TEDxTinHauWomen event next month and has recently completed a “really fun” project for a UK-based client on the theme of sex and Christmas. “Cute, sexy illustrations… like a reindeer with a gag,” she said. 

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Mercedes Hutton

Mercedes is a Hong Kong-based British journalist with an interest in environmental and social issues. She has written for the Guardian and the BBC and previously worked at the South China Morning Post.