Known for its normcore style, Japanese brand MUJI exudes Zen purity—the “intrinsic appeal of an object through rationalization and meticulous elimination of excess.” Its name (which can be translated to “brandless”) and advertising convey this aesthetic. With simple layouts and unbusy photography, the typical MUJI product catalog whispers to us, “Life without loud colors and flashy logos is good.” For an illustrator overflowing with imagination, MUJI’s relatively plain product catalog was a place to release her creative energy.
Last summer, New York-based artist and illustrator Amber Ma (b. 1987) did not throw away the MUJI catalog she picked up during a visit to one of its New York stores. Instead, she “recycled” it by turning it into a canvas for daily doodling project. Filling the catalog with lavish watercolors, delicate drawings of fantasy creatures, and erotic nudes, she transformed the unadorned catalog into a dreamscape. These imagined figures use MUJI products—from glasses, lunch boxes, plates to shirts and bean bags—as their playground, reflecting Amber’s belief in the unseen in our human world.
Amber Ma studied animation as an undergraduate in China and is now pursuing a master’s degree in illustration at the School of Visual Arts. Reflecting upon what had inspired her Drawing on Muji Catalogue project, she recalled a particular emotional state last summer. “Somehow I was very angry about the ideas that women should be conservative and should stay at home,” said Ma about her unabashed depiction of sexuality and womanhood in this project. Additionally, she recalled a strong obsession with primitivism, as well as a longtime fascination with yōkai, supernatural monsters often the subject of Japanese woodblock prints. Juxtaposing art historical references—such as the one below depicting a contemporary version of Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters—with everyday products, Ma’s odd sense of humor and playfulness confronts us, and make us think about our human desires.
Selected works from Amber Ma’s Drawing on Muji Catalogue project, ball pen, watercolor, ink, acrylic, and linoleum print on 7 x 10 inches catalog pages. Image courtesy Amber Ma.
To give you an idea of what this MUJI catalog actually looks like:
Amber Ma will present her latest art book project in an upcoming show at School of Visual Arts in September. Stay tuned for further information. In the meantime, see more of her work on Instagram: @Amberwonderland.