Chinese-American Identity Explored through Embroidery: Jessica So Ren Tang
I’ve recently discovered the incredible work of Chinese-American artist Jessica So Ren Tang. She currently has two bodies of work which both explore the multi-dualism in Asian-American identity.
Her first series is sculpture based, and involves embroidered replicas of Chinese-American objects such as take out boxes and cup noodle containers. These sculptures are made to scale and have even been mistaken for the real thing – such is her attention to detail.
For her second body of work Jessica embroiders young Asian women in suggestive poses, embellished with traditional Asian textile patterns. She leaves the signature black hair, removes the facial features, and adds white skin to suggest the stereotype of the submissive, weak, but exotic Asian woman.
Jessica spoke to me about her dual identity:
In various situations and interactions with people, I’m often either too American to be Chinese or too Chinese to be American. This weird ‘ping pong’ of identity is what I try to emulate when creating replicas; they take on the identity of the object but simultaneously reject the identity because of the medium. It’s hard for me to put into words, this feeling.
Jessica explained that her process and choice of medium is also linked to her heritage:
Embroidery is a slow and repetitive movement that often reminds me of Asian labor, particularly female labor and manufacturing. Each stitch I put in, especially in the food related objects (like the Chinese bowl, chrysanthemum tea box, and tea pot) reminds me of the invisible female labor that goes into family life, the food industry, and the manufacturing industry.
Jessica also talked about the theme of authenticity in her art, and how this too reflects aspects of her identity:
I am told I’m not Chinese because I don’t drink tea, I can’t read or write Chinese, I’m bad at math, etc. But I’m too foreign to be American; too Chinese. I don’t look like your everyday american.
In the same way, her Chinese bowl or take out box will never be the real thing, just a close second. I recreate each detail to the best of my abilities but I cannot clone these objects. These sculptures can never be the original objects but they retain the same image.
Jessica received a Bachelor of Art in Studio Art from Mills College, Oakland, and has exhibited in various galleries. She shared her views on the art world with me;
There are some things about the art world that suck. As with many other industries/fields, the art world is male dominated. We’ve come a long way and it makes me happy when more female artists get recognition. Also the perception of embroidery and fiber/textile mediums is often considered lesser or more crafty and not fine art. However, the medium is getting more popular. Another is the lack of education for students wanting to pursue an artists career. Lots of people get “work for exposure”, often underpaid if they’re paid at all, and the field isn’t taken seriously as a career.
With all the artist I talk to, I like to get to know about their working process, their day-to-day studio life, and the things that keep them going while they work. Jessica’s told me a bit about her routine:
A typical day of work starts when I return home from my day job. I get home around 7pm, eat dinner and get settled down, and embroider anywhere between half an hour to three hours till I’m tired. On Saturdays, I wake around 6am to catch a Google hangout with Japanese doll artists. I work on my side non-embroidery project (sculpting a ball jointed doll out of paperclay) and when I have to wait for the clay to dry, I jump back to embroidery. The hangout typically ends around 10 or 11 and I get some food to eat and go back to my embroidery. I usually get several hours of work done on weekends, unless I have other errands or projects I’m working on.
When I started to embroider more, I would put on Disney movies but they were too distracting. Then I switched to Pandora stations of Disney songs, Bon Iver, Pheonix, or soundtrack music. Then I moved to putting on youtube playlists of people who play games or vlog their vacations at Disney World. (I’m a big disney fan) Then I found out about live streams on Twitch and would listen to people playing various games. (Scary games are fun when the players freak out) Lately, when there isn’t a recent stream or if I have watched all the recorded streams, I’ve been listening to Disney songs in different languages.
To conclude I asked Jessica about artist that inspire her:
I definitely love Cayce Zavaglia’s work, Lisa Smirnova, and Ana Teresa Barboza’s work. As for non-embroidery artists, I love doll artists like Kseniya Shaburova, Ksusha Zhang, and Dongxu Sun. I have so many artists I admire.
Take a look a Jessica’s website for more incredible embroideries, and follow her progress on Instagram.