Norway and Shanghai connect through illustration at the exhibition "Ni Hao Shanghai"
In the vibrant heart of the city, the unique exhibition "Ni Hao Shanghai" has begun at the newly-renovated Shanghai Book City, featuring the enthralling work of three accomplished Norwegian illustrators – Mari Kanstad Johnsen, Bjørn Rune Lie, and Kristin Roskifte.
The collection is a visual interpretation of their immersive 17-day residency in Shanghai back in 2019, offering a profound glimpse into the diverse facets of this dynamic metropolis.
The idea for this artistic venture was sparked in 2018 at the China Shanghai International Children's Book Fair, when Svein Størksen, from Magikon Publishing House in Norway, watched a successful exhibition of a residency program for Spanish illustrators.
"So I asked the fair's person-in-chief, who's next? Maybe Norway!" Størksen recalled with a laugh.
Tasked with choosing Norwegian illustrators, he picked the three artists for their exceptional drawing skills and remarkable capacity to engage with the city through lively sketches. This choice ignited a creative journey, shaping the "Ni Hao Shanghai" exhibition and celebrating art's universal language beyond cultural borders.
The illustrators eagerly accepted the opportunity, and the timing, just before the 2019 Book Fair in Shanghai, turned out to be serendipitous as the world would soon grapple with the onset of the pandemic.
Originally planned to be exhibited in Shanghai first, followed by Bologna and Oslo, the exhibition's order was altered. It premiered in Oslo, followed by Bologna, and has now returned to its city of inspiration – Shanghai.
The exhibition has undergone changes as well; the artwork, once displayed in its original size, now appears in a smaller, more intimate format. This alteration allows visitors to immerse themselves in a visual world that covers every inch of the walls.
During their residency, the artists enjoyed complete independence, capturing the true essence of Shanghai. The freedom granted to them was palpable, an invitation to explore the city's nooks and crannies, its stories and its people. The resulting illustrations, now on display, bear witness to their genuine engagement with Shanghai's multifaceted identity.
The artists didn't shy away from the complexities. Their work delves into the intricacies of everyday life, portraying the city's pulsating energy and the diverse characters that inhabit its streets. From bustling markets to quiet corners, their sketches narrate a visual story that is both raw and authentic.
The depiction of Shanghai is not confined to picturesque landscapes or glossy representations. Instead, it offers a candid exploration of the city's soul, showcasing its resilience, struggles, and triumphs.
In one poignant sketch, the artist Lie paid homage to the hardworking individuals maneuvering three-wheeled bicycles, laden with the weight of their endeavors. "You understand that these are hardworking people," Størksen said. "It's not making fun of them. The artist is on their side. He has respects for them. He identifies with them in a way."
This deep connection between art and humanistic care echoes throughout Størksen's reflections on his time in China, a country vastly different from his native Norway.
Every experience in China is a cultural shock for the Norwegian. "The two countries could not be more different, such as the languages," Størksen said, recounting his endeavor to grasp a bit of Chinese, and highlighting the fascinating disparities in alphabets and word order.
Yet, in the face of these pronounced distinctions, he posed a philosophical question – one that echoes the spirit of the "Ni Hao Shanghai" exhibition: "Do you concentrate on the differences or the similarities?"
The musings extended beyond the language barrier, the contrasting landscapes and the different political systems. He delved into a broader contemplation, urging people to adopt an open-minded approach when confronted with vast cultural disparities.
"Even with China and Norway, we are much more the same," Størksen said. "The universal human experiences of love, the thrill of falling in love, and the simple pleasure of eating, even if the food is different, are the same for us. If we start to focus more on what's unified us instead of what separates us, I think the world would be a better place."
The "Ni Hao Shanghai" exhibition stands just as a testament to the power of artistic expression in bridging cultural gaps and offering a unique perspective on one of the world's most dynamic cities. As visitors navigate through the intricacies of these illustrations, they are invited to explore the shared humanity that transcends geographical boundaries.
Looking ahead, Størksen teased at future collaborations between Norwegian authors and Chinese illustrators. "Imagine a series of picture books for children, where the narrative marries Norwegian words with Chinese brushstrokes – a true cultural collaboration, and it would be very interesting when cultures meet," he said.