Art Talk: Exclusive Q&A With Victo Ngai

Arts

September 14, 2017 | BY Cherry Lai

Award-winning illustrator talks limited edition collaboration with Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Behind her warm-natured disposition and easy laughs, Hong Kong-born, Los Angeles-based Victo Ngai (a nickname derived from Victoria) is a force to be reckoned with on the illustration art scene.

The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)-trained illustrator—whose portfolio spans printed porcelain, silk screens, stamps and a recently-published children’s book, each brimming with meticulous details, brilliant line work and a sophisticated mastery of the colour palatte—has graced everywhere from pages of the New York Times to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, and is now back in her motherland for an exciting collaboration with luxury scotch brand Johnnie Walker Blue Label on the ‘Pioneering Cities’ collection.

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Available exclusively in Hong Kong from September, the limited-edition 70cl bottles are adorned with illustrated Hong Kong iconic symbols including a Cantonese opera performer, skyscrapers, colonial architecture and neon lights, celebrating Hong Kong’s Eastern and Western influences through marrying the exquisite artistry and craftsmanship of the coveted blend and artist.

Ahead of the launch, we had an exclusive chat with Victo to talk about creative processes, cultural crossovers and her tipple of choice (spoiler alert: it is not whiskey).

Photo: Courtesy of Johnnie Walker Blue Label/Prime Asia

What drew you to this partnership with Johnnie Walker Blue Label?

They emailed me about this opportunity and the proposal just looked amazing. The level of thought that was put into it makes this feel very high end. I haven't done much packaging collaboration, so to me this is a fresh and new endeavor. That’s why I was very interested in participating. 

Your works for ‘Pioneering Cities’ are permeated with Hong Kong symbols and Asian influences. What was the inspiration behind?

We wanted to reference a lot of Hong Kong's elements, both new and old, east and west. I think these are the things that make Hong Kong truly unique. The city is a very interesting place—I didn’t realize that when I was growing up. Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong did not have a cultural revolution, so we actually preserved a lot of the traditional festivals, rituals and Chinese art forms. I find that very fascinating.

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What was your creative process, in terms of conceptualising, materials, techniques, and mediums for this collection?

As with most of my commissioned projects, I would provided three sketches for the client before discussing which works best visually and conceptually. This project, which deals with a three-dimensional object, provided an interesting challenge as I usually design for flat surface. So I had to constantly visualise how the image was going to fit on the bottle. It needed to work well as a flat image but also as a three-plane tryptic, and elements needed to be well-placed and not awkwardly cut off around the edges when wrapped around the next plane.

While the blue hues show off the natural golden colour of the whiskey, we wanted the image to look good on its own too, so people will keep the empty bottles and display them as standalone art pieces.

Photo: Jack and Queen at the Green Mill by Victo Ngai (2013), Tor Books, AD: Irene Gallo, courtesy of victo-ngai.com

Are you a whiskey lover yourself? What’s your go-to drink?

(Laughs) I have to admit I’m not an expert when it comes to liquor. I feel like I have a kid’s palate, so I prefer a cocktail. When it comes to whiskey it’ll be a whiskey sour. Maybe when I get older, I’ll get fancier and start drinking it on the rocks. I really like mojitos. It goes down so easily and it’s so good for hot weather, very refreshing.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what spurred your passion and career in the arts.

It was sort of an accident; when I was a kid my family didn’t have a babysitter so I spent afternoons at the newspaper company where my mom worked, drawing with paper and pens lying around. I’ve always loved stories, my mom used to read me bedtime stories so I started retelling them to myself with images, creating imaginary friends and adventures on paper.

I didn’t know that being an illustrator was a feasible career path for a long time. When I was growing up in Hong Kong, there wasn’t any art schools but only art classes or university programs. It’s getting better though as we have SCAD and other art schools now.

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Having grown up in Hong Kong, educated at RISD and now based in Los Angeles, how has the cultural crossover influenced your artistic sensibility?  

There’s a saying 'you are what you eat'; it's the same with art. We cannot fabricate something out of nothing, it is all birthed from personal experiences and extensions of our lives. My earlier work had stronger Asian influences but it started changing as my career progressed and I traveled more. It’s not a conscious decision; as you grow organically, your work follows the same trajectory.  

Animation still from The Wound and The Gift by Victo Ngai (2014), courtesy of victo-ngai.com

One thing that’s striking about your work is the use of vibrant, brilliant colours. How did that signature aesthetics come to be?

I think that stems from my early subconscious exposure to traditional Chinese arts—Chinese temples are decorated in these vibrant greens and red. As I later got into RISD and learnt about art history, I found that artists who interested me also used vibrant colours, such as Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh. I loved that colours no longer just replicated reality, but was a tool to express your own feelings and emotions which is a much more powerful way to use colours.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Forbes 30 under 30 (on which Victo was named an Art & Style honouree in 2014) is probably the most quoted in the media, but one that I’m really proud of is the Society of Illustrators of New York gold medal [won in 2012]. That was very unexpected as I’d only been working for two years and was very much a newbie. That was my first major award.

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Where do you hope to take your art in the future?

I really want to start authoring my work. So far most of the work I’ve done is commissioned. Recently I published my debut children’s book Dazzle Ship but that also was authored [by Chris Barton]. Eventually, I want to be able to illustrate my own story. 

Do you have any advice for emerging or young artists?

I get asked a lot: how do artists find their style? That’s something I struggled with when I first started out. Looking back, I would say: just relax and don’t sweat over it too much, because it cannot be forced. Instead, put the best effort in everything you do, be open minded and stay curious. That way, you will be able to build a curatical collection of the things you like that will eventually inspire your work. 

The Johnnie Walker Blue Label Pioneering Cities Limited Edition collection will be available from September 1 onwards at major retailers and specialized stores around Hong Kong. 

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