Coffins and angels, blood and weapons, stuffed animals and school uniforms. These images all live comfortably together across congming's wild body of work.

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

Illustrator Cōngming 聪明 has created a cinematic world of cartoonish violence through which she broaches weighty discussions of death and identity. In one piece, her soul sits in an empty theater, smiling happily as the finale of her short life plays on the silver screen. In another, she’s surrounded by funhouse mirrors depicting different versions of herself. Coffins and angels, blood and weapons, stuffed animals and school uniforms. These images all live comfortably together across her wild body of work.

The 24-year-old artist was first inspired to draw by anime and manga, and she honed her skills in notebooks throughout high school in Hunan. But it wasn’t until she started university in Hangzhou and got her first tablet when her blend of comedy and horror began to take shape in her work.

The outlandish brutality of Japanese animation, Hollywood crime films, and rap videos was key in molding her signature style, which can be best described as a blend of despair and kawaii. “Bad guys cradling kittens are much more attractive than outright villains,” she laughs.

Death as a theme is a near-constant, with angels rising from corpses and wandering the land of the living. Although she’s not Christian, she finds the imagery useful for depicting the idea of the soul and afterlife. “Every day we see death on the news and on social media or in our lives,” she says. “All things are equal in death. Everyone will die.” She hopes her work will help people face the idea of passing with more serenity, including herself.

Whether it’s a view from inside a coffin being buried or a body decaying through multiple stages before floating off as a formless soul, congming wants to invite more balanced discussion around the too-often taboo subject. “People’s fear of death is nothing more than a fear of the unknown,” she says.

One form of death that’s frequent in congming’s work is suicide. In one series, a character rushes into an empty hospital hallway, crashing into a mirror and stabbing her reflection until it breaks, leaving her slumped and lifeless on the floor. “The suicide rate among Chinese teenagers is increasing and I have a lot of friends who suffer from depression. They are oppressed by society while suppressing their emotions.” To counter those trappings, she lets herself express herself freely and sees no weakness in embracing her own problems.

Congming thinks a big part of the problem is that people are forced into specific roles, and they end up unable to be true to themselves. “From birth to adulthood, we have been labeled by society. We can be students, artists, parents, or celebrities,” she says. “But we rarely think about who we really are and what our life is meant for.” To visualize this frustration, one series depicts an office worker pressing his face onto a photocopier and printing paper duplicates of himself. The flimsy doppelganger travels through the city, flopping around weakly with a drawn-on smile. In another piece, someone goes on a murdering spree in a theater full of replicas.

Whether it be through humor or bloody gore, the message of these works is the same: don’t be afraid of going against the grain. “I want to explore the fact that each of us is unique in this world,” she says. “We’re all multifaceted and need to accept every aspect of ourselves.”

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Contributor: Mike Steyels
Chinese Translation: Olivia Li