Riffing off Chinatown staples, Gabrielle Widjaja adds a stylistic spin to reflexology posters, Hongbaos and more
The Brooklyn-based artist merges graphic design and illustration in an exploration of her Chinese diasporic identity.
- Jyni Ong
- 23 February 2021
Gabrielle Widjaja, otherwise known as Gentle Oriental, has a multi-disciplinary practice that aims to reclaim orientalism. What she means by this, is that she observes the east, not as the “other” but as a distant home, and from the perspective of a westerner who feels foreign to their own ancestral land. In turn, she tells us, she explores “what it means to be an Asian of the diaspora.” Gabrielle draws on a particularly unique aspect of her identity, reinterpreting “our culture into a more digestible and relatable experience for our western audience."
Immersing her audience in wit and visual humour, she cleverly plays on the vernacular of reflexology posters seen ubiquitously in the windows of Chinese medicine establishments, as well as sexualised DIY flyers pasted haphazardly on the inside of phone boxes. A designer by trade, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate currently works full time as a brand designer at a tech company called Airtable. She remarks on how design is her bread and butter, but outside of work hours, she absorbs herself in another passion: drawing.
At university, she started experimenting with illustration and found a way to complimentarily integrate them into her design practice. Born and raised in the Bay Area but now based in Brooklyn, the past few years have seen Gabrielle gradually dig deeper into her heritage, exploring her Chinese ancestry and her dual cultural experiences through creativity. Interrogating the Chinese diaspora through illustration, graphic design and most recently, tattoo art which she calls “a magnificent playground for illustration,” the artist throws her own spin on omnipresent visual features within Chinese communities, also familiar to anyone who treads those streets well.
“I feel like I’m constantly toeing the line of appropriating my own culture somehow, but I think it’s acceptable as long as we are contributing to or trying to say something about it,” says Gabrielle, “not simply borrowing from it visually.” With this in mind, the illustrator celebrates what is often classified as ‘bad’ Chinese graphic design. Design that looks as if it may have been thrown together on Microsoft Word in a number of minutes, but also bears a sense of nostalgia and a kitschy kind of beauty. Incorporating dots and dashes in the detailing, Gabrielle’s distinctive signature style pulls all these references together in a highly original manner.
For Gabrielle, the charm of these graphics is in its limitation, “the limitations set by a lack of programs and trends breed these really funky original design patterns that I’m drawn to,” she adds. A trait visible in her 1-800-LADIES and reflexology poster. The former is inspired by her time living in Shanghai last summer. Someone would slip sex worker ads under her under every night without fail which Gabrielle then collected and taped to the wall to create a kind of poster. “I basically remixed the poster and redrew the ladies (and they-dies) to reflect a diversity of womxn while keeping the bold and unapologetically crass collage of phone numbers and euphemisms.” The reflexology poster, on the other hand, is a design experiment; just one of many examples of how Gabrielle seamlessly merges graphic design with illustration.
In other work, Gabrielle has a new t-shirt design now available on Everpress titled Nüshu: A Culture of Sunshine. Inspired by a lost written Chinese language that was only used by women in 19th century Jiangyong county, the t-shirt design features a famous Nushu relic, a coin. The coin is engraved with a phrase which loosely translates to “All women are connected”. Gabrielle adds: “I wanted to convey the same message as an interpretation of modern day feminism and a melding of Eastern and Western references.” Accompanying the coin, the illustrator reinterprets Botticelli’s famous Primavera which takes centre stage as the graphic. But instead of depicting the original three white women, she portrays women of different ethnicities. Hand rendering the typeface depicting the slogan in line with how Nushu women would scribe on the insides of fans, books and clothing, the t-shirt has been a popular design so far; a testament to how people are resonating with the profound message.
Most recently, Gabrielle is collaborating with Wing on Wo & Co, the oldest store in New York’s Chinatown and a staple of the community. Specialising in high quality porcelain goods since 1925, Gabrielle had the honour of collaborating on its Lunar New Year collection. In turn, she designed a set of Hongbao (red envelopes gifting money for the new year) and a lapel pin. It was a dream project for Gabrielle, as the Hongbao is significant both culturally and festively. “They are a wonderful canvas,” she says on her design featuring this year’s zodiac, the ox, “what with all the gold foiling and a plethora of rich imagery to riff off.” As for the lapel pin, the design features a porcelain vase flowing with peonies, and an ox illustrated on the vase to unite the two designs together in a “perfect merging.”
With this momentous project now under her belt, Gabrielle hopes to further tie her illustration and design work together in the future. Hoping to embark on more collaborations (whether it’s with individuals or brands), the Brooklyn-based creative has her sights set on marking many more household items with her spin. “I would seriously love to design a vinyl or album cover,” she finally goes on to say, “or a set of shot glasses, a deck of cards, a puzzle, more zines,” and so on. As someone who loves being a maker, her opportunities appear infinite.
GalleryCopyright © Gabrielle Widjaja, 2021
Copyright © Gabrielle Widjaja, 2021
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.