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Source: China State Council Information Office 3

If you are going to make a statement on fashion in Europe then there are worse places than the Italian city of Milan to showcase your talent. On Jan 23, the day before Chinese Lunar New Year’s Eve, La Rinascente department store in Milan displayed something special to welcome in the Year of the Rat.

Eight of its arched showcase windows that adorn the building displayed large-sized illustrations with blazing red acrylic ink and black lines. It was the work of young illustrator and designer Chen Zuer.

There was nothing subtle about the art on display. This was not a vase of flowers in a sunlit room, nor green fields with butterflies, but a dragon with flames, a Peking-Opera-costumed performer, a woman in the style of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) carrying pigment and a paint brush, and a modern girl with a Western suit floating in the air with clouds and black dogs galloping by her side…

You get the picture. Chen’s artworks combine elements of both the East and the West, ancient and the present, drawing attention from passers-by with a clear sense of oriental elegance tinted with a light, but also daring, Western expressiveness. The young Chinese artist’s fresh designs lit up the place and cut a brimming dash of youth to the age-old Italian store.

Though the exhibition lasted only 10 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 27-year-old, now back in China after having studied in France for about a decade, has been content to look back on this showcase event as a noticeable breakthrough in her career.

Chen is also making her mark in the motherland. On Nov 6, she joined 120 artists to present her work during a three-day group exhibition held at the Singularity Plan Festival in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. A visitor comments under her post on micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo: “Chen’s illustration was impressive. Actually these artists were all very creative, and I benefited a lot from communicating with them.”

Chen from Shenzhen, Guangdong province, was always fascinated by the world outside. She went to Paris at the age of 14 and was drawn by the charm of the metropolis, staying there for about a decade, studying design and graphic art at ESAG Penninghen. The experience tempered her in such an immersive way that later inspired her to release her first book of illustrations, Paris and Me, in 2018.

The book reflects her life experiences and inner change while studying in Paris. In it, she paints in a bizarre manner – salamis become dancing girls, the local ancient architectural buildings are opera performers waiting in the wings, and stools hurry to have afternoon tea… “It is a book full of my ‘crazy ideas’,” says Chen, who has garnered more than 330,000 followers on Sina Weibo.

Chen seems to have the knack of “making up stories”, after years of training from her sister, who, being four years younger than her, pleaded with her to read bedtime stories every day when she was young.

“I used to read her stories every night before sleep, but she always asked for more,” recalls Chen. “So I decided to create my own stories using matchstick men to share with my faithful little audience.”

Now she has been telling her magical stories for more than 13 years. Matchstick men, with the name “Ant”, became her specialty and from which developed her present painting style. However, she hit a bottleneck in her sophomore year of college when a professor highlighted the imbalance between the finely-drawn clothes and the crude limbs of her figures. Entangled but impelled, she started her exploration in different ways of representation and materials, developing a keen interest in acrylic ink.

Her works have a strong oriental style, although the ink she often uses has not been traditionally used in Chinese art. “I love witnessing cultural collisions, and want to combine Chinese and Western elements that are sometimes conflicting. Such contrasts often give me surprising results,” she says.

Her Red and Black series of artworks, displayed at La Rinascente, was such a pleasant surprise for her. During the 10 days it was exhibited, she stood nearby observing the reactions of the passers-by. She was glad to see many of them stop to take photos and read the descriptions below each show window. “I was so proud when some came to me and told me that they enjoyed my work,” Chen adds.

Chen recalls that when she first met staff members from the department store to propose her ideas for displaying her work in shop windows, she was nervous. “They seemed very strict and nobody smiled,” she recalls. “I kept telling myself just to show them the real me.”

When asked her opinion of Chinese culture, she said that “it can be magnificent like the Palace Museum, but it can also be as simple as what I drew as a Chinese girl”.

In her presentation, she showed her illustrations. She won the opportunity, and was given the chance to exhibit.

Besides painting, in 2018 Chen founded an art salon in Shenzhen called the Witches’ Feast in order to provide a platform for young Chinese artists to communicate. Twenty-six artists attended the inaugural event, in which they created art by using just two specified colors to create a “magic world”, while at the second event in 2019, 40 artists took part, and they focused on creating work based on the “mysterious orient”. The exhibitions that followed attracted many visitors.

Chen plans to organize the third iteration of the Witches’ Feast in April 2021, and this time the theme for participating artists’ creative works will be related to hope and energy, she says.

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