Artist Statement

I believe that humankind is the core of world development, how to achieve the fulfillment of humankind’s’ potential is the fundamental solution to solve world issues and to promote world development. As globalization continues, to unite all the human beings to build a community of shared future for mankind, where people understand, respect and collaborate with each other, regardless of gender, sexual orientation,  races, nationality, religion, or cultural background, is the fundamental condition to achieve the prosperous and peaceful development of the future world.

As a millennial artist, my mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding and global development through art and design. Working at the intersections of contemporary art, project design, social science, philosophy, and politics, I strive to achieve my vision by exploring three aspects in my practice:

  • self: how to understand who you are
  • self and others: what brings all human beings together
  • self and the world: how art and design change the world

Rather than an idealistic pipe dream or a blind imitation of others’ ideas, my belief are shaped by my 7 years professional experience with AIESEC, the world largest youth-led organization, through which I went to over 30 countries and territories to work on cross-cultural understanding and youth leadership development projects, and my art and design study at the Royal College of Art. Following I’m going to explain my art practice from the three aspects mentioned above.

1, Self.

The first aspect of my art practice is the concept of self, by experimenting on different art forms and materials, I aim to find out how to use art as a visual medium for better self-expression and self-understanding, and transform mindset to achieve the ideal-self.

I did my first painting at the age of 2, since then, painting became my favorite way to express my feelings. Growing up, working as an organization leader and trainer, part of my job was to deliver leadership training to young people at international conferences. To lead them a better understanding and expression, I found that painting was an effective tool overcoming the language barrier and background diversity, let alone more fun than only talking and listening.

To study more forms of art, I chose to study Art and Design at the Royal College of Art, London. During the multidisciplinary study, I have tried various forms of art, like painting with different materials, sculpture, installations, costume design, textile art,, spatial design, film, and etc, and got introduced of different learning methods, which opened my paths widely and challenged my perceptions to art and self.

In the project of Artefact, starting with a film of brain scanning at V&A museum, an Immortality Technology that may keep people living forever without a body, I researched on relationships between body and mind, and the concept of one self or many selves. First, inspired by David Shrigley’s poster-size drawings, I painted and wrote the process of my analysis on multi selves on 45 pieces of paper, and displayed them on one wall. Next, inspired by subtraction cutting by my tutor Julian Roberts, I used my own body to transform these multi selves into body images. Finally, I designed a costume made by different pieces representing each self, as a path from dissociation to association. This process has not only helped me to understand myself much better but also let all of me living in harmony in one body. In the end, wearing my costume in front of artworks of my brain and body activities was like a celebration of self.屏幕快照 2019-02-06 下午6.06.42.png

In the book of Art as Therapy,  Alain De Botton proposed that self-understanding as a function of art can enable viewers to become better versions of themselves. We are the mysteries of ourselves, but art has the ability to help us to understand ourselves, and communicate who we are to others. The audience may like one artwork just because “This is how I feel, this is the deepest me. ”

In the project of Paradigm, I experimented on creating an immersive art space and designing an immersive experience to engage all senses of viewers, the art space could emit emotional contagions, if go deeper, may change their subconscious mind successfully. In my final project, I experimented a series of  Caged Man– expressive human forms made by clay, fabric or painted paper, trapped in cages– displaying the struggling of forming ideal self from invisible influence by peer comparisons, values of the society we live in, media, and significant people around them, which was inspired by the theory of Looking-Glass Self developed by Charles Cooley.

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Fur further development,  I plan to study cognitive psychology, brain science and maybe disruptive technology, to design an art experience which could strike a chord in viewers.

2,  Self and Others

By exploring the relationship between self and others, the second aspect of my art is to seek the universal language which brings all human beings together, regardless of gender, sexual orientation,  races, nationality, religion, or cultural background, and to pose critical views about the power and conflicts.

My initial inspiration was the Face2Face art project created by the French photographer and artist JR, by pasting up portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face to face on either side of the Separation Wall,  he tried to show that beyond what separates them, Israelis and Palestinians are enough alike to be able to understand one another, art and laughter combined can break down prejudice.

I have done a simple experiment in the Philippines, at the Valentine’s Day, I found street kids selling national flowers outside of a Luxury mall to draw me “What kind of love do I want to have?”. As appreciation, I gave them heart-shaped candies and bought their flowers. Then, I found adults inside the Luxury mall to draw me “What kind of love do I want to give ?” As appreciation, I gave them these national flowers and shared with them drawings from street kids. Later, I exhibited my painting “What Kind of love do you want ?”  together with drawings from these kids and adults, and asked the audience to draw their answers and exhibited together. Through this art experiment, I aim to build a warm connection between people from different classes and appeal to them for giving love.屏幕快照 2019-02-06 下午6.23.55

In the project of Navigator at RCA, I have experimented a collaboration mode for artists with different personalities and backgrounds. My partner is an Indian girl while I’m from China, she is extrovert while I am introvert,  she keeps blank space in her graphic design while I can’t stop filling all the space with expressive colors, not along our different perspectives. It seemed that we can’t communicate, in fact, we were always in argue. As a hopeless attempt, we tried to paint on a piece of 250 cm x 220 cm canvas together,, layers by layers, to express our different perceptions towards the theme “Time, City, Being”. After me painting the canvas full of colors to present the city as a crowded human zoo, she would put some white colors as a breath, after me pasting many leaves and flowers presenting time in four seasons, she would take them off to express everything disappeared with the flying of time. We recorded the process and made a stop-motion film, The process was like a huge time-based collage, where two different people communicated well through art.  It could be one of my art modes for the cross-cultural understanding project in the future, in collaboration with different people to present the harmony in diversity, like the symphony.屏幕快照 2019-02-06 下午6.24.48

Working in Iran for one year had shown me how dramatically we misunderstand this country and their people. To present the rich cultural and image of Iran, I started to design a series of Persian Princess portraits, a figure in hijab, rather than black, but a delightful cartoon image. I used bright and pure colors to paint flatly on canvas and paper, decorated with complex geometric patterns,  which were inspired by the style and techniques of Persian miniature and the Islamic pattern design from the historical architecture and Persian carpets.

These paintings were exhibited Iran and Afghanistan, which created quite successful social impact –my paintings were reported by the most famous national newspapers and TV channels and called attention from the presidential office and the country minister.屏幕快照 2019-02-06 下午6.26.16

Instead of positioning the Persian Princess as an Iranian woman image, I hope to bring it to the global stage, as a self-portrait as well as an icon which presents an embracing of all cultural diversities and humanities,  in another word, a cosmopolitan or a global citizen. Like the Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami and his Mr.Dob, a self-portrait image, which is Japanese, but also universal appeal.

3,  Self and the World

To fulfill our self-values, we need to be engaged with society. Similarly, a work of art is not isolated but closely connected with times. As a responsible artist as well as a global citizen, the third aspect of my practice is to raise awareness of global issues through art and providing innovative solutions to global goals.

In the speech of the Why art has the power to change the world by Olafur Eliasson, at World Economic Forum, he said “One of the great challenges today is that we often feel untouched by the problems of others and by global issues like climate change, even when we could easily do something to help. We do not feel strongly enough that we are part of a global community, part of a larger we… Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world felt. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action.”

During my work with Asian Development Bank in Manila, the Philippines,  it was heartbreaking to see four million dwellers living in the slums, struggling from issues of poverty, environment, education, and human rights. What impressed me the most was that– most Filipino citizens were used to it,  instead of taking actions to change, they chose to wait for the government’s policies, which would never be attained. More disappointingly, few non-Filipinos were aware of the slum issues or willing to help.

Inspired by the Brazil slum project which transformed the slum with street art and drove the tourism economy,  and Joel Bergner, the artist who created elaborate paintings and public murals that explore social topics in Syrian refugee camps, I initiated an art and social project “Color Up the Dark”,  to bring happiness and hope to slum children by delivering art workshops and house graffiti, and to encourage more people to offer help via online crowdfunding.

To make the goals happened, I designed five steps to deliver the project:

Step 1,  launching a crowdfunding project globally on social media, by illustrating and storytelling, to move people’s emotions and arouse compassion, to encouraged them to raise money for slum children. I kept them updated with the process and designed artworks like postcards,  books, paintings as appreciation. In this way, I raised 6000 USD from over 300 people as a starting fund and got massive media exposes about the slum issues.

Step 2,  building partnerships with the Asian Development Bank, local government, paints company, local art gallery, and local NGO in the slum,  to get enough resources, volunteers and other support for the project delivering

Step 3, running art workshops to 200 children in slums, after getting a little bit training on how to use art materials, children were encouraged to paint the topics I provided— water,  home, happiness, curiosity, dream, etc. I recorded their paintings and stories for social media showcasing.屏幕快照 2019-02-06 下午6.36.41

Step 4, designing mural with a group of Filipino graffiti artists, based on the themes we have discussed with locals during art workshops, and painting walls and houses with children and their families.屏幕快照 2019-02-06 下午6.29.58

Step 5, showcasing and spreading the impact via art exhibitions, documentation,  publications, and social media. Ronac Art Center in Manila exhibited my paintings based on the project, art workshop drawings, photographs, and documentaries, to raise awareness among more Filipinos.屏幕快照 2019-02-06 下午6.40.23

It was a successful experiment in the process and result but failed in bringing tourism and business opportunities for sustainable development of the slum. Not limited in Manila slum, this project structure could be copied and delivered in similar cases in other countries. During my residency with ArtLords in Kabul, Afghanistan, I made a similar “Color Up the Dark” project, through partnerships, art workshops, mural paintings, art exhibitions, and media collaboration to raise awareness of violence, gender, and education issues.屏幕快照 2019-02-06 下午6.46.42

I believe that everyone has a mission coming to the world. For me, I aspire to devote 100% of myself to achieving my mission — promote cross-cultural understanding and global development through art and design. I appreciate your time in reading my story and believe that passionate minds recognize each other and will jointly make our world a better place.

Mowen Li

Royal College of Art, London


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