While he was at university, Mojo Wan skipped compulsory engineering lectures to stay in his shared dormitory illustrating on his Mac. After graduating last year, the 23-year-old is already a full-time freelance illustrator working for seven magazines in China, including some international brands.
But he dreams of giving up working to briefs and deadlines to pursue his own art, and winning a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar. A glance at his artistic journey from collage to ironically comic pop art to tender, arresting images, confirms that the former, at least, is achievable. As Future Lovers, his first exhibition dealing explicitly with homosexual images, opens in Shanghai, Wan talks to Gay Star News.
Wan draws at least four illustrations a week, but he still doesn’t consider himself an artist. ‘I’m still young and I like doing art, but I’m not an artist yet,’ he says. He’s drawn over 50 illustrations, not counting commercial work for magazines that run into the 100s, but ‘most of them are lousy’ he says. He didn’t agree though when an artist’s manager suggested he should give up his digital stylus and move over to painting on a canvas, because ‘real’ paintings are more valuable.
‘Even though it’s a digital print, even though it can be printed more than once, if it’s beautiful it is meaningful. I’m a little bit anti those old-fashioned people who think digital prints don’t mean anything. How you value a piece of art should be the way it expresses itself and the things it expresses, not whether it can be copied.’
During Wan’s time at university in Shanghai, knowing a career in engineering wasn’t for him, he dreamed about working in the media. After emailing the editor of Time Out Shanghai four times he finally got an internship there. Before long he became the magazine’s in-house illustrator, eventually getting his own regular half-page ‘Mojo’s world’ in the front pages of the magazine.
Wan considers his internship at Time Out Shanghai his big career break because the Western editorial staff valued his illustrations more than he experienced on Chinese magazines. ‘A lot of editors in China don’t have a good sense of what is good illustration,’ says Wan. ‘If the chief editor likes it, it’s good, if the chief editor doesn’t like it, it’s not good.’
Now Wan is also a regular illustrator for Elle Men, Modern Weekly, Fashion Weekly, Lifestyle, His Life, and Esquire in China, but he dreams of working full-time on his own art. He’s realistic though about the competition and the need to make a living. ‘There are tuns of talented people in China, not to mention the whole world, but art isn’t enough to buy food.’ With interest from Europe and more exhibitions, next year could be the year Wan can let his artistic work take centre stage.
Wan says he’s ‘not good at planning the future’ but hopes that he will have the opportunity to go abroad to study art. He wants to leave China, not because he can’t live freely as a gay man here, but because he wants to see the world. He also wants to win a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar, ‘I’m not kidding! I have a lot of ridiculous goals,’ he says.
On online gallery Society 6, Wan finds that more Westerners appreciate his art than Chinese people. A conversation with a gallery curator gave him a clue why. ‘She said, “this is good, I like but it’s hard to sell because not a lot of people want to buy a naked man to hang in their guest room”.’ But Wan thinks that in 20 years when his generation are grown-up things will be different. ‘The new generation are open to everything, we are ok,’ he says.
In Wan’s early days, when he was still at university he did a lot of collage work, some made from second hand books and old fashion magazines from markets. Now his style is starker, with simple powerful images. His latest exhibition, Future Lovers, is his first collection to explicitly feature gay sex. Wan says that part of that is to show the world how comfortable he is in his own skin.
‘My work is a little bit ironic about sexuality, but this is the first time I’ve shown work about homosexuality. I think Future Lovers is partly to show that I have confidence about who I am, in an arty way.’
Like gay teenagers around the world, Wan was picked on at high school – ‘some boys and girls said things like “sissy boy”’ – but since then he’s not faced discrimination partly through his own confidence, gained by reading books and watching art house films, ‘not Hollywood silly movies but meaningful movies from Europe’ and his chosen career path.
‘I’m lucky that I work in the magazine industry and the fashion industry, where you practically have to be gay to work there – if you are a man.’ He says he’s met some straight guys pretending to be gay to get a job in the fashion industry.
Like many Chinese people, Wan didn’t have a problem coming out to his friends – ‘when I told them, “actually I’m a gay” they were like, “yeah we already know that”’ – but he still hasn’t come out to his parents.
‘My parents cannot accept it. They think men should be with women and that’s how all humans do it. But they don’t know the whole of history, not only in China’s history, but in the world’s history, homosexuals have always been there. Some people think it’s like a cancer, or bird flu. A parent of my friend, when they learned I’m gay, said “you kids eat too much McDonalds and KFC, they changed you”. They blame it on the food, or the pollution.’
Wan has faith that his mother will accept him one day, but two years ago she told him she would disown him if he told her he was gay. ‘I will eventually come out to her when I’m strong enough to show her that I’m really happy. Because I’m her son, the one thing she really wants for me is happiness.’
Wan’s father, who divorced from his mother when he was seven and whom he’s not close to, is satisfied that he’s enough of a man for him because he smokes and drinks.
‘I was at a family dinner with my father’s family. He offered me a cigarette and a lit it up for myself and he figured out that I’ve smoked for a long time. He said, “now I’m relieved, I was always afraid that if you lived with your mother and your grandmother you don’t know how to be a man. But now you are a man.” So based on that you can see how my father thinks. I think there’s no need to tell him the truth. Let him live in the beautiful world where his son smokes and drinks – that’s important to him.’
Would Wan ever consider marrying a woman to please his family like many Chinese gay men do? ‘Maybe before I would think about marrying a woman to please my family and parents,’ he says. ‘But now I know that your life is your life and it’s not about pleasing your parents. I’m confident being myself and I’m confident being a gay.’