“When I was a kid, I really enjoyed reading fairy tales,” Shanghai-based illustrator Jiaa Li tells us. “I found that my mind was always full of all kinds of pictures after reading stories,” something that has clearly carried on into her work today where she crafts hazy dreamlike scenes that are equal parts uncanny, ethereal and delightful.
“I don’t think I’m a person who is good at expressing my feelings directly,” Jiaa says, “so I like to hide my opinions and feelings in my illustrations.” She notes that throughout her schooling she would draw every day in her diary, referencing that as the beginning of her more graphic sensibilities. Sometimes feeling overwhelmed by a reader of her work making “sighs of ‘oh’ or being moved to tears,” Jiaa can also feel totally elated, thinking “ah! She knows what I'm trying to say!” To this end, Jiaa’s work has a therapeutic sense about it, both for her to express her own feelings and motives, but also with the hope that it can help others.
It is this element of emotive decryption that Jiaa finds is the most exciting aspect of the illustrative medium; having a channel to express one’s own perspective of the world which, in turn, may inspire fresh or further understanding. “I think illustration can transcode real things,” Jiaa summaries, adding, “I think the power of touching people in illustrations is very valuable.”
Jiaa focuses on fragmented words and imagery she has faced in real life, with the protocol to “collect the seemingly obvious things, and create them in my way.” Adding to this fractured, layered aesthetic and concept, Jiaa also plays with different media, such as photography or typography, adding to the narrative of her illustrations. An example is A Slice of London, a collaboration with her partner, which was written in response to the Tesco near her apartment in London. “We visited Tesco more often than any other tourist attraction,” Jiaa tells us. “Shopping in Tesco to buy food for home cooking seems to become an essential activity, so when we think of London, we tend to focus on small and daily stuff.” Looking at the video diary they kept across the two years they resided in London, the couple extracted 11 fragments of dialogue and paired them with illustrations and photographs – resulting in a chaotic but poetic publication.
In discussing her own influences, Jiaa remarks that “although my inspiration often comes from trivial observations and conversations in my life, some of them are even sad stories,” whereby she manifests the humorous side of morbidity. “I love the ambivalence,” she adds, “moreover, I like to try multi-focus compositions,” leaving breadcrumbs of details in the hope of allowing the audience to consider the greater picture and garner a broader understanding.
In Jiaa’s project All Is Well she expresses a more political mindset, responding to the communal mentality across China that in order to be seen as successful and happy you needed to obey the “Society Criterion”. “But are people really happy with stability and conformity [in their] lives?” Jiaa asks, aiming to visualise this apparent absurdity and her reluctance to conform to a “happy life,” as dictated through the “multi-focused” compositions of her work. In creating incredibly chaotic scenes, Jiaa intends to reflect on how this expectation makes her feel. “The topic of this project is actually heavy for me,” she explains, “but I didn't want it to look so sad, so I handled these heavy ‘Society Criterions’ in a humorous way;” hoping that behind the innate absurdity of her work, the audience will have a chance to reflect and reconsider.
Jiaa Li: Catching Butterfly (Copyright © Jiaa Li, 2020)
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.