When in Shanghai…

Society & Culture

Sveta Dorosheva's homage to China's largest metropolis

Flowers for Buddha

This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.

In 2018, Shanghai’s Swatch Art Peace Hotel invited Sveta Dorosheva to take part in its artist residency program, and over the course of three months, the Ukrainian illustrator explored every nook and cranny of the city, dovetailing in a series titled Life in Shanghai. To her, as someone who’d never traveled to China before, her time in the city was something out of a fairy tale, a fantastical place that captivated her imagination. Her experiences in the city also gave her newfound insight on Chinese culture and local lifestyle. “Shanghai is different from just about anything in this world,” she says. “It might have landed on earth straight from a different universe altogether. ”

Chaos 《乱》
KFC Cooks 《肯德基厨师》

Within her Life in Shanghai series, the city is shown in a truly magical light. The hand-drawn detail, the full-frame compositions, and minimal colors presents China’s biggest metropolis with a dream-like grandeur.

What may be surprising to viewers though is that the prominent use of reds in the series isn’t due to the color’s significance in the country. It’s not rather traced back to her own childhood. Dorosheva was born in Zaporozhye, an industrial city in southern Ukraine. Growing up there, she always thought that rivers were supposed to be red—a result of how the factory productions in town often bled a crimson dye into the river. This unnatural red of engrained into her memories is now an integral part of her art style. In the context of this project, the reds evoked the palettes of older Chinese art.

150 Buddhas 《一百五十面佛》

Shanghai instilled Dorosheva with a new dose of inspiration though. With skyscrapers that seem like they were built in the future sitting alongside aging architecture from decades past, the city felt like a confluence of different timelines. “Shanghai is all about extreme contrast,” she says. “Ancient history in hypermodern settings, mythical creatures under mundane laundry, glamorous shopping malls and nondescript but crazy underground clubs. You don’t know what to expect and what you might see next.”

Dorosheva soaked in the sights before ever putting pen to paper. She took strolls everywhere in the city, and took in all it had to offer, from window shopping at high-end malls and visiting historical temple to checking out locals parks and trying out street food. Everything that she saw, she took snapshots, which would become the foundation for much of her work. 

Park 《公园》
Red Ball 《红色皮球》
Old Ladies 《太太》

Life in Shanghai was originally planned as a watercolor series, but on one outing, she realized the watercolor kit she carried around to be too cumbersome. She decided to shop for different illustration supplies on Fuzhou Road, and there, she discovered shops that carried traditional calligraphy art supplies, a medium that she’d previously been unfamiliar with. The novelty of working with ink brush on rice paper was a game changer.  “It was a calligrapher’s paradise, a garden of earthly delights: brushes of all possible shapes and sizes—from huge witch broom-like brushes, hung from the ceilings, to tiny, hair-thick brushes the size of a grasshopper’s leg, that were sold by the bunches like greens at the street market,” she recalls. “And the inks, the wax boxes, the delicately carved jade seals, the phials with ink crystals! I lost track of time, lurking around the corners of the shops—a lifetime wouldn’t be enough even to try such an amazing wealth of treasures!”

Lily Pond 《莲花池》

To the uninitiated, it might be difficult to believe that Life in Shanghai wasn’t created by a local artist. The fidelity with which Dorosheva captured the local ways of life and Chinese culture is mesmerizing. Calligraphy-inspired brushstrokes, Buddhist sculptures, and Chinese porcelain define the series. This respect for Chinese culture was in part due to the time she spent at local museums and bookstores. “I spent a lot of my money on a large number of calligraphic calligraphy books, Chinese comic books, such as Journey to the West, and more,” she recalls. “The books’ delicate, skillful techniques were unheard of to me.”

At the age of four, she discovered the magic of drawing, and even though her parents didn’t come from an artistic background, they supported her. Throughout the years, she developed an aesthetic that drew heavily on European medieval art. For Life in Shanghai, there was no intention to mimic traditional Chinese art. She believes that the medium she worked with carry inherent qualities that transformed her style.

Chess 《下棋》
Old People, Old City 《老人和老城》
Power of Peppa 《小猪佩奇》
Eggs 《鸡蛋》

Dorosheva says that the entirety of Life in Shanghai were based on real-life happenings—the scenes portrayed are rooted in her experiences. They all depict on people she’s met and places she’s visited, though she sometimes transposes objects from other parts of the city into a scene. To her, reality is far more interesting that fiction. “In this series, my objective was to stay as close to real-life observations as possible,” she says. “That was the whole point, to convey just how fantastical everyday life in Shanghai really is. ”

Whether it be a mother and daughter praying at a local temple, a group of elderly men playing Chinese chess in nongtang alleyways, colorful laundry hung out to dry from windowsills, or a restaurant worker catching a cigarette break—these mundane scenes are given significance under Dorosheva’s delicate brushstrokes. The details draw viewers into each scene, almost as if they’re seeing through the artist’s eyes. There’s no over dramatization, and the hand-painted approach adds a certain human warmth into every scene. “There’s something special about an image enamored with everyday life versus something heroic or tragic or any other type of extreme,” she notes. “Life largely consists of routine rather than peak emotions, actions and events. Things we do every day are more important than things we do once in a lifetime. So, I am giving them special attention and find beauty therein.”

Buddha Doll Option 《佛像选购》

Life in Shanghai is comprised of thirty artworks, and Dorosheva is in the process of publishing the entire series in an art book. “The book will in Russian, but hopefully, one day I can get it translated and released in Shanghai,” she says.

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Contributor: Pete Zhang