Silk Road Conversations with Vikki Zhang (Artist)

Silk Road Interviews are inspired by Silk Road Week, an annual event conceived by Chinese Museums Association, International Association for the Study of Silk Road Textiles (IASSRT), and China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. The theme for #SilkRoadWeek 2020 is “The Silk Roads: Mutual Learning for Future Collaboration.” We thank IN ZHEJIANG, our media partner in China (on Facebook).

Name : Vikki Zhang | Country : China | Years Active : 6 | Website : Vikki Zhang 

All art courtesy Vikki Zhang

Q – How do you describe your work to people who don’t know anything about your field?

I am a freelance illustrator who primarily works on books, advertising, packaging, film posters, textile designs, etc. I am also setting up my brand, in which I designed cheongsams for kids. You can find my artwork on book covers, silk scarfs, magazines, billboards, porcelains, and so on.

Communication is the core of commercial illustration. My job is helping clients/writers find a creative solution, visualize their stories/concepts engagingly in my art style. I enjoy being an illustrator, as each project links me to fresh cool people.

I make personal work in spare time. I held two solo shows in Shanghai and Beijing 798 art zone. This year, my first art book will be published.

All art courtesy Vikki Zhang

Q – What inspired you to become an illustrator?

I had that idea since I was a kid. When I read a great story, I had a strong motive to draw the characters and scenes, design their wearing and home. During that time, illustrators from Japan were popular. Through their interviews, I learned how to be an illustrator, an artist, as well as some watercolor skills. Although I was learning traditional Chinese painting.

I am certain that story-telling and building a strong artistic voice are what I wish to pursue in the future.

I went to New York after finishing a BFA program in Beijing. The fantastic environment in New York – artist friends, museums and shows, publishers, indie stores, comic fairs… – keeps inspiring me.

All art courtesy Vikki Zhang

Q – How did you develop your current style of painting?

My fondness of history, old stuff, cultures, handicrafts, fantasy, fairies, costumes, surrealism … make up the cabinet of curiosities in my mind. I like adding a little magic, not too much to flavor the real-life settings. My stories usually took place in a world of multiple cultures, times, spaces crossing over, where humans, animals, plants, and unknown species live together harmoniously. Influenced by my passion for fashion and heritage, the characters shown in my illustrations are usually overdressed, surrounded in a delicate world where each corner is filled with beautiful treasures that I have seen in museums or documentaries. I always keep a sketchbook by hand to record those things.

I like asking myself “What if “ questions to push myself to think further. “What if” break boundaries; “what if” twists the impossible and makes it look reasonable. The habit to challenge the existing rule, the eagerness to create something fresh, gradually forms my art style.

Q – What is the most memorable object you’ve researched, or worked with?

The illustration I did with the National Silk Museum, located in Hangzhou, China, for Silk Road Week.

The winged horse is the theme of the event’s logo. We began the project with articles provided by director Zhao, about comparing winged horse patterns on silk thrived in China, Japan, France, and Persia. I’ve never been able to find those tiny differences before reading the research, which gave me new insights at the sketching stage. Silk Road is quite a big theme, we narrowed it down, just focusing on symbolic animals from various lands connected by Silk Road.

Except for winged horse, there were dragon, tiger, camel, deer, double-headed bird, lion, peacock…accompanied by people from China, Persia, Indian, Arabia, and others, to show goods and ideas exchanged through the trade road. Animals show up frequently in my other works. I wish to convey my expectation of protecting the Earth and biodiversity through my artwork, where humans and nature live on a balanced and harmonious basis. That’s another voice hidden in these image, in the context of the outbreak of COVID-19 and many other natural disasters.

According to the description of brocade material in the article. Mrs. Sun from the museum’s design department suggested weaving the illustration as the final representation. So I looked into animal patterns from ancient fabrics and utensils to find a decorative expression.

The composition was inspired by the classical pattern of two winged horses standing symmetrically with a flowering tree as axis. The flowering tree symbolizes life, placed in the center, surrounded by five groups of animals and characters flowing from land to heaven. The idea of the background came from a documentary about the West Market in the Tang Dynasty, where business flourished when merchants coming from along silk roads gathered to trade.

All art courtesy Vikki Zhang

Q – Do you recall when was the first time you heard of the phrase “Silk Road”? What was your first impression of it?

From history class in high school. The first impression is the endless queue of camels marching in the desert.

Q – What is your most memorable experience of traveling along the Silk Road?

I was born in Jiangsu, China, along the Silk Road. My mom works in Hangzhou, so I have had the chance to visit the city which is famous for silk, and where China National Silk Museum is located. The beauty of this city is based on the fact that she embraces both the modern skyline and so many historic heritages, which is very similar to how Silk Road connects the past and future. 

Q – Which city or region along the Silk Road are you looking forward to visiting, for the first time?

Dunhuang. I will bring my sketchbook and watercolors.

Q – What language(s) spoken along the Silk Road have you studied, or wish to study?

I speak Chinese. Too many languages I wish to learn. A new language is a new soul. I want to learn Arabic first.

All art by Vikki Zhang

Q – What is the hardest part of your work that people don’t realize?

The hardest is the time balance. Usually, there are multiple projects carried on simultaneously. But to produce a great work I need to focus completely on the work that is in front of me and not become distracted by other jobs’ deadlines.

Q – What is your dream (or even fantasy) research project?

To work on aspects of architectures from the Tang Dynasty (circa 618-907 AD).

Q – If it were possible, what historic l figure would you like to meet? Why?

The person I would like to meet is not famous. She is a no-name singer who’s skilled at Chinese lute, she lived the most ordinary life when life on the Silk Road was thriving. She played and sang for Silk Road travelers and merchants who stopped at Lou Lan (楼兰). People who heard her music would treat this memory like an ever-shining ruby embedded in their travel stories. I wish to see her fabulous costumes, listen to the mythical rhythm, and share the adventure stories she heard from the audience.

All art courtesy Vikki Zhang

Q – What movie best depicts a historic or aesthetic aspect of the Silk Road?

The Deer of Nine Colors (九色鹿), an animation film produced by Shanghai Animation Film Studio in 1981, adapted from a story painted on one of the frescoes in Dunhuang Caves (Thousand Buddha Grottoes, 366-1000 AD).

Q -What music or soundtrack most embodies the sound of the Silk Road for you?

 Silk Road Fantasy by The Repertoire of the National Traditional Orchestra of China.

Q – What fundamental change(s) in your work do you anticipate in the post-pandemic world?

I temporarily switched my work place from New York to China.

Q – What modern day cultural trend (sports, music, art, architecture) has its roots in the Silk Road – that majority do not know?

I would love to talk about Persian Miniature Paintings, a richly detailed art form that flourished from 13th through the 16th centuries.  It has great influence on modern-day’s book design, textile, packaging design, and of course, illustrations. The geometric architectural elements, structural composition, empty area of solid color with action moves around, narrative playfulness, two-dimensional perspective with elements overlaid on each other… are still popular expressions we illustrators love to use in our work. 

Dunhuang Scores (Dunhuang Yuepu, 敦煌乐谱)

Discovered in a sealed cave by the Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu on June 25, 1900, Dunhuang manuscripts are a cache of important religious and secular documents discovered in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, China, they date from late 4th to early 11th centuries. The music in the above video is performed by the Central Traditional Orchestra (中央民族乐团) of Beijing and the Shanghai Traditional Orchestra (上海民族乐团), conducted by Liu Wenjin (刘文金), Huang Xiaofei (黄晓飞), and Qu Chunquan (瞿春泉). The pipa soloist is Wu Yuxia (吴玉霞). Vocalists include Jiang Jiaqiang (姜嘉锵), Li Yuanhua (李元华), Shan Xiurong (单秀荣), and Zhai Xianli (翟宪力), among others.