The sincere and heartfelt illustrations of Xinmei Liu
When the staff of The New York Times, the new yorkerand Amazon Publishing today request a graphic illustration related to China, they often contact Xinmei Liu, alias cat mover or, in Chinese, Nuo Mao Zhe (挪猫者).
“I guess art directors put me in a folder labeled ‘Asian’ or ‘Chinese’ because they always come to me when they need visuals for such themes,” Liu jokes.
Born in Shanghai and based in New York, Liu’s work is indeed broader in scope. Yet, in the directors’ credit, his love for Chinese culture really shines through in his illustrations, making them stand out from the typical, outdated imagery often seen in international media.
With a tone of thoughtful nostalgia, most apparent in his use of warm colors and grainy texture, Liu’s illustrations show the peculiarities of country life.
His work is globally endearing, yet it touches Chinese audiences with particular intimacy – especially those of the post-1990 generation.
Liu remembers his childhood in Shanghai in a very sensory way. She remembers the pungent smell of chemicals in the old East China University of Science and Technology laboratory building, where her father worked as a chemistry professor and where she was sometimes picked up by his graduate students. .
She remembers the made-up songs her grandfather used to sing in his native dialect on long walks around the neighborhood, and the bitter taste of the grapes from the vine he had planted in the garden – they had to eat them unripe to beat. birds and ants.
Years later, Liu’s memories culminated in Urban landscapes, a series of illustrations based on her memories of the world around her as she grew up. The series depicts sights across Shanghai, including old-fashioned bicycles, clothes hanging out to dry, urban complexes, and the dark metal windows typical of the city’s modernist buildings.
It wasn’t until she moved to New York to pursue her master’s degree in illustration as a visual essay from the School of Visual Arts that Liu realized that her Western peers seemed to have had a more carefree childhood than her – du less with regard to certain types of pressure.
His series Template Citizen Guidelines depicts several maxims that children had to live up to, such as being a team player, focusing on the books (as opposed to looks), and, essentially, being good at everything. However, Liu portrays the theme with irony, illustrating how children relate to these rules with delightful cheekiness.
“I can’t help being a bit ironic or satirical in my art since these are thoughts that I don’t usually feel comfortable expressing verbally. Sometimes humor is more effective in evoking thoughts and reflections and it’s also a great way to talk about taboos,” she says.
Although the series is primarily based on her own experience, Liu intends to challenge conventional ideas of how children should behave in a way that is not specific to Chinese culture, but rather universal.
In most of the drawings in this series there is an outlier. We see a child who breaks the rules, plays in the rain, pees on the mill or prefers art to science.
This child may very well represent Liu’s inner rebel as a child. “I was terrified of getting into trouble and constantly felt the need to live up to the expectations of adults and anyone who saw me as a role model of a good boy. I was a rebel at heart, but not in action,” she says.
The study of art caused Liu to change his perspective on the small things of his childhood, such as designing the packaging of iconic Chinese products.
“The packaging of the White Rabbit candy is a classic, and there’s also the glass jar of milk from the ‘Friendship’ face cream with its green cap; I love its simple yet elegant shape and unassuming geometric label,” she says.
Even though these products rarely appear in his illustrations, their Art Deco aesthetic has definitely imposed itself in his style.
Chinese propaganda posters also influenced her work – not those from the 2000s when she was growing up, but vintage ones from the 1980s.
She is drawn to their graphic style, typography, and use of negative space, all of which she incorporates into her illustrations, combined with more modern designs that reflect Chinese society today.
The combination of retro and modern elements is clear on its cover for The Shanghainesean initiative that pays homage to Shanghai by inviting artists to draw their favorite scenes of the city.
Liu’s cover shows two funky older ladies sporting retro clothes and Apple gadgets and holding eye-catching dancing fans at People’s Park.
“I think the way older people live in Shanghai really shows the culture and energy of the city. They’re actually on the famous blind date spot, where aunts and uncles seek partners for their unmarried children,” Liu says.
“I read that some aunts also set up blind dates for their gay children,” she adds.
Liu’s most recent cover work was for Liu Xinwu’s first English translation The wedding party. The novel takes place over a single day in 1982, in a Beijing siheyuan (yard) house, and is full of eccentric characters.
She developed a few different ideas for the cover. Some focused on the wedding party and banquet; others have explored the architectural side of the novel, since the original Chinese title literally translates to “Bell and Drum Tower”.
The chosen design depicts the diverse set of characters gathered in front of the siheyuan, and Liu hopes readers will have fun identifying who is who in the story.
For this project, she had to do extensive research on the history and structure of siheyuans, as well as culinary traditions, such as dishes prepared for weddings.
“The story itself is an excellent reference. It taught me a lot about Beijing in the 1980s,” she says, adding that Xinwu also describes the banquet in detail, citing the order in which the dishes are served.
The book also includes two internal illustrations by Liu: an overhead view of the courtyard house showing the various rooms where the story takes place, and a drawing of a messy banquet table after the feast, with leftover food and Tsingtao beer spilled all over the world. floral tablecloth.
Interestingly, Liu only went to Beijing for quick trips. “Now I really want to go back and explore the hutongsshe says, referring to the small alleyways surrounded by traditional courtyards commonly found in Beijing.
Liu’s most frequent illustrations are editorial assignments for articles and book reviews. Given the climate of international geopolitics, most projects are critical of China, and the occasional political piece could land in its hands.
Caught between two worlds, Liu feels she has no responsibility or even the power to ease the tension with her job. However, she remains firm in always making sure she is okay with the content before accepting an assignment.
That’s not to say his work isn’t critical of his country – it often is. But the last thing she wants is for this to serve as propaganda for either side.
Through her illustrations, Liu offers a candid, original, and revealing look at a complex and ever-changing country she knows from the inside – a country that is impossible to sum up with clichés.
“I don’t think you need a red background with yellow stars to symbolize China. I know drawing such pictures would be quite boring for me,” Liu says.
“Instead, I enjoy drawing real people and life in China a lot more, because I can relate to them.”
All images courtesy of Xinmei Liu
Additional reporting by Lucas Tinoco