Provocative pin-ups and playful illustrations may not be the most ordinary combination seen in art, but Emilie Sarnel is not your ordinary artist. The Hong Kong-based illustrator presents complexly layered collages that blend Hong Kong's rich history together with its present, featuring artifacts from the city's past and her own whimsical drawings. Despite that her work often takes on local issues with solemn undertones such as the Umbrella Movement and the loss of Hong Kong's heritage, she imbues her work with a certain lightheartedness that makes them accessible to audiences of all generations, a quality that has certainly made her popular with clients such as macaron purveyor Paul Lafayet and luxury brand Hermès. Fresh off her last exhibition "Print Market" featuring a plethora of local artists and illustrators, Sarnel speaks with me about being nostalgia for old Hong Kong and creating quirky illustrations with a social message.
How did you first become interested in illustration?
My parents' best friend, who is a librarian, would always read beautiful books to me when I was a kid. Also, I went to visit an illustrator’s studio on a school trip when I was eight years old, and I found it fascinating that you could have a job that was about drawing all day.
What influences your illustration style the most?
I’m not exactly sure where my style comes from, but it is a mix of many influences including French comic book authors, like David B. from L’association, who is great at drawing with black ink. Being in Asia allowed me to play more with Chinese ink, which is now very popular in France.
Do you illustrate using traditional or digital tools?
I always draw everything by hand, and usually in black. After scanning my drawings, I like to play with the colors digitally.
Your work depicts many Hong Kong cultural artifacts and landmarks - what is your favorite place in Hong Kong?
I’m not sure I have one favorite spot - I love Kowloon side for its density and the authenticity of its Chinese lifestyle. It’s definitely fun and inspiring to walk around Yau Ma Tei, Prince Edward and Sham Shui Po. I find Central Hong Kong less and less interesting now with its standard “cool” bars and restaurants.
Your work incorporates both historical and modern Hong Kong culture - do you prefer Hong Kong’s past or present?
I guess I’m more of a nostalgic person - I tend to miss times that I never even knew. I’ve always been inspired by retro music, Chinese divas and pin-ups, Japanese new wave music, etc. Hong Kong seemed to be so architecturally interesting in the past, and I feel quite sad that malls are being built every year all over the city to replace its few remaining historic buildings. In contrast to Hong Kong, Shanghai has kept its old mansions and houses, and it’s a real pleasure to walk around the French concession and really feel the history of the city.
Your work took on a political dimension when you included symbols of the Umbrella Revolution in your Hong Kong with Love series - what role you think artists have in shaping the social fabric of Hong Kong?
I found the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong very inspiring. It seemed that suddenly all of Hong Kong’s young people woke up and gained a political consciousness that I have never seen before in Asia, neither in Shanghai nor Tokyo. I usually try to stay away from politics in my drawings, but this time I felt that I had to support the local youth. Freedom of expression and the right to vote are basic rights that everyone should have.
What’s your the most interesting project that you’ve worked on so far?
The most exciting project I’ve worked on was illustrating for Hermès’ Spring/Summer 2015 fashion show and press events in Hong Kong, as it is a brand that I admire very much. Despite being a high-end luxury fashion house, they are very open to creativity and collaborate with a lot of different talented people all over the world. The brand has quite flexible guidelines, which gives designers a lot of opportunities.
How does Hong Kong stand out from the other cities that you’ve worked in?
Hong Kong is a very exciting place. Many people start their own businesses here, and there’s a lot of energy and dynamism. Everything goes very fast - maybe too fast. It’s hard to keep up and to create a stable culture here.
Do you have any exciting new projects coming up?
I’m currently in Europe, but designing more children’s travel books on Singapore and New York for the Leap and Hop series and working with an international cosmetics brand in Hong Kong.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists in Hong Kong?
Keep believing in your talent and don’t work for free! A lot of people tend to think our job is just a hobby, especially in Hong Kong.