Chinese-Canadian artist and ceramicist, Sami Tsang, has made her New York City debut this month at Claire Oliver Gallery with the group exhibition Teetering on the Brink: Femininity, Inheritance, and Disaster. We were able to catch her ahead of the opening and talk about Chinese proverbs, line art, the duality of pandas, and taking up space, among a myriad of things.
Tsang’s sculptures are unique because they hold both humour and sentimentality, which is no easy feat. Her experience of growing up in Hong Kong and her subsequent migration to Canada is ever-present in her work, especially as she uses her practice to question and reconcile displacement and duality. The artist’s visual language emerges from her studies of Chinese painting and material, which she hybridises with elements of Western sculptural tradition and references to comics. In a way, her work can be read as a refreshing palimpsest of Western and Chinese cultural symbols and histories converging.
The sculptures on view at the exhibition, which runs through May 11th, encompass both whimsical scenes of domestic encounters and immersive objects such as mirrors and masks (both miniature and large-scale). The works contain elliptical references to her conservative childhood, as well as a multitude of figures and imagined characters. Tsang’s autobiographical elements serve as one of the many lines of inquiry into her broader questioning of domesticity, the multifaceted and gendered self, familial hierarchies, and of course, play.
Hot Tea Melts Me Down
Proverbs are so intrinsic to the inherited cultural fabric of a particular community, family and country, and in a way, they are a moment of exchange, revealing the truths of our collective imaginations. You’ve said that the initial sketches of your work are informed by Chinese proverbs from your childhood. Could you tell us a little about this return to childhood and share some of your favourite proverbs at the moment?
Many Chinese proverbs that I was raised hearing have become ingrained in my subconscious. In many ways, these have both felt limiting but also have given me structure to push against and to build upon in my artwork.
The four that stand out are:
家丑不可外扬, which means “the problems that happen within the family need to be solved internally or it will bring shame on the family.”  This belief was ingrained in me through my upbringing.  I deal with a lot of personal events in my work that are encoded and referenced elliptically.  I’ve developed a visual language filled with imaginary characters, animals, humor and Chinese symbology to reference deeply personal events.  This is a direct reference to the proverb.
There is another one, 家家有本难念的经, which means “every family goes through its problems.” I stay mindful of the stories I tell through my sculptures and I want to connect with others whose culture may not be allowing them to share their struggles. I want them to know they are not alone and that every family, including mine, has their problems.
血濃於水, “blood is thicker than water.” This idiom originated in Germany and became popular in England at the beginning of the 19th century. Since the 20th century, “blood is thicker than water” has been widely used by Chinese people. It is a metaphor to describe inseparable family ties.
Finally, 牙尖嘴利, “sharp teeth and sharp tongue.” This is typically used by older people to younger people who are trying to express their opinions. In my experience, it’s often used to put younger people in their place as older people in my culture often take a younger person’s attempt to express their opinion as being challenged.
Your titles are really whimsical in how deadpan and declarative they are—I’m An Only Child; Hot Tea Melts Me Down; My Ugly Destructive Shadow. They are very much in line with your thematic explorations of domesticity, the multifaceted self, vulnerability and the absurd. Language seems to be central to the world you bring to life through your ceramics. How do you title your pieces?
I always title my work after the piece is completed. My process starts by asking myself, what is pressing and urgent in this work? And continuously try to find the answer as I create. The titles are self-referential and autobiographical, however, once I’ve completed the piece and it’s in the world, I become a bit more detached. Ultimately, I very much want viewers to have their own interpretation and connection to the work and the titles are not didactic.
As a ceramicist, do you feel there is a synergy between your pieces and language?
I’ve always found verbal communication difficult and confusing – this is both because I faced a language barrier when I immigrated to Canada at age twelve and also through my own cultural heritage of deference to elders as a youngest child. This experience has driven me to develop a visual language that I use in my work.  I find expressing myself through visual art very liberating.
Take a Good Look at Yourself
There are so many eerie, vulnerable and mischievous profiles, masks and faces in your works. Can you unpack this fascination with a multiplicity of characters and of selves?  Where did these different figures originate from?
In terms of duality, one example I’m fascinated by is the panda, which is a treasured and symbolic animal in both Western and Chinese cultures. The white fur is to camouflage in the snow, and black for the shade. This reminds me of the conflict I feel holding both Chinese and Western cultures and the ‘code switching’ I feel depending on where I am and who I’m with. So I definitely play with this concept of multiple identities and the hidden self.
I am also really influenced by comics, which were a daily ritual for me as a child. I love the frozen action,  rich visual information and bubble speech, and the scale of the panel indicates the importance of content and narrative pace. Comics also employ visual cues for movement, action and speed, which have had an impact on my work. When I illustrate emotion like anger, I intensify the imagery with directional line art. When I illustrate emotion like anxiety, I use the dry brush painting technique to generate vibration within characters.
You studied traditional Chinese painting for many years before breaking away, yet some details and stylistic elements continue to permeate your pieces, even as you challenge both Eastern and Western sculptural cannons through the layering and hybridization of these elements. Are there any particular traditional techniques that you are still attached to in your current work?
I studied traditional Chinese painting for several years while growing up in Hong Kong. I'm intrigued by the shades of black that the ink offers and how the water and pigment submerge and affect one another. It is crucial to pay attention to the liquid that is held within the brush. Once the brush tip is laid on the rice paper, an expression is made – similar to when certain actions are made, or once words are spoken. There is no going back, there is no erasing, there is only going forward. To me, the beauty in Chinese painting is the honesty between the painter and the emotions laid on the rice paper.
I find it excitingly challenging to need a level of certainty before making a strike. In Chinese painting, line art is also an important language for the painter to form images vividly. I am urged to pay attention to lyricism and freehand brushwork. The lines are richly expressed in the most concise language. There are subjective, emotional lines both long and thick, curved and thin, fast and slow, straight, rough, and soft. They all intermittently generate rhythms, express emotions, and have rich artistic effects.
Many congratulations on your upcoming NYC debut at the Claire Oliver Gallery. Your work is so steeped in the examination of place and displacement, as well as in what occurs when familial and artistic traditions are reshaped. How does it feel to present your work within this unique urban context, which in a way, is so far removed from the conservative social structures and outlooks that you question in your work?
I’m so excited and proud to present my work at Claire Oliver Gallery in New York City.  As the center of so much incredible visual art, it’s a dream to have an exhibition in the city and definitely feels like a big stage to be on. As someone whose work is autobiographical, it’s very much part of the process to push myself and my work out of my internal sphere and comfort zone. I welcome others’ interaction and interpretation with my work and I hope to spark dialogue with a larger audience.
Your mirror series is so striking and full of humour, echoing some of the masks we see worn by the characters in your other pieces. Mirrors are fascinating objects because they reflect, bend and distort reality, our perception of ourselves and the world around us. What is your relationship with mirrors and what do you think sparked this series?
I started the mirror series because I wanted to create a gateway for viewers to be a part of my work. Many themes in my work are universal. That’s a bit of my process in general, most of my work starts out very personally, but I always intend for it to exist in the greater world. I encourage viewers to have their own interpretations and respond to my work in their own unique way.
Hot Tea Melts Me Down
The mirror series and your wonderful Zodiac Cup Set suggest that there is some practical quality to the decorative art-object. How do you navigate the line between functionality and formal exploration in your ceramics? Do you tend to prioritize one over the other, or do you feel your works are more sculptural than practical?
I enjoy making functional work and sculptural work. There are times in life when my studio practice is an emotional salve and there are other times when I simply want to make a fun object that doesn’t have any meaning behind it.
What would be your ideal space for art-making (in a literal or metaphorical sense)?
To keep art-making passionate rather than ‘work’, I have to do what excites me. The studio is a place for me to feel excited and passionate, I could be doing simple sketches, painting on canvas, making functional cups, or creating monumental sculptures – it’s all on a continuum of visual expression.
Let’s talk about scale and space. Some of your pieces are quite large, yet others are more intricate or carry miniature figures within them such as the cat in Hot Tea Melts Me Down. Could you talk about the impulse to allow your characters to take up more or less space both within the domestic settings of their world, but also within a public setting (such as an art gallery for instance)?
For many years, I’ve carried the mindset of feeling and being small. Working on a large scale symbolizes taking up space and being connected with others. I cannot lift the large works myself so this scale has forced me to collaborate and ask for help, which has felt really good both in art making and in life.
Through showing my work in this exhibition, I wish to expand my ability to tell stories and reach a wider audience. Coming from a background that has felt unseen and unable to feel fully understood, both in a domestic setting and also from a cultural perspective, being a storyteller feels very liberating.
Your works beautifully blend textiles, clay, ink, rice paper and even chains. How do you approach material and colour in your practice? Can you trace a transformation in your choices from your earlier works?
At a certain point, I became interested in working with different materials. I returned to Canada during the pandemic (I had been in graduate school in NYC), there I no longer had access to ceramic facilities so I started working with polymer clay and paintings, acrylic, watercolor, color, pencil, and fabric. The experience was very grounding and reminded me of the freedom and fun of artistic expression when I was a child. During those early stages I was using Dollarama canvases to do paintings and I was using rice paper that I’d brought from Hong Kong to Canada ten years ago. I rediscovered a lost love of these materials that I now incorporate in all of my work. Sometimes, the content of my work is heavy for me and clay can be a difficult process. Using other materials has kept the process fun and exciting,  like there are no rules that I need to follow. Working with multimedia is a way to expand the work both visually and narratively. I let myself feel and invent the process as I go.
Do you have any exciting future projects in mind that you can share with us?
I am currently still exploring scale as well as exploring realism a bit more, rather than the cartoonistic style in my current work. I’ve found the comic book idiom to be a safe way to explore complex emotions and autobiographical events, but I’m ready to introduce more realism. I feel like this is part of the evolution of both myself and my work, which is really all about starting out feeling voiceless to now owning my own narrative.
My Ugly Destructive Shadow