The New York-based Taiwanese textile and garment artist, whose work breaks away from unhealthy tendencies of the fashion industry, recently hosted her first solo show in her hometown, Singapore. Shawna Wu’s pieces are exalted through traditional and detailed handweaving, knitwear and textile making craftsmanship, reiterating the idea of thoughtful material consciousness and sustainability. By manipulating textiles sensuously, Wu addresses our understandings of intimacy, empathy and cultural nuance.
Correct me if I’m wrong. Your parents are Taiwanese, you grew up in Singapore but now you’re based in New York, where you studied Fashion Design at Parsons. “I’ve been involved in situations where I have held the shock or miscommunication stemming from cultural differences. I hold it in myself and remember those feelings of adjustment”, you once said. How does this mix of cultures affect and translate into your work?
It has deepened my empathy for all voices, stories, cultures. It keeps my work grounded in real human experience, community and storytelling, and the loaded emotions that come with navigating shared spaces in the world. Living is very emotional. This recent show, for example, explores emotions relating to pride (beauty) and shame.
You are a garments and textile artist. Looking at your pictures, we admirably see how your work has a deep material consciousness. The meticulous handweaving, the textile craftsmanship and all the techniques you employ through intimacy and cultural empathy. What does fashion or textile making truly mean to you? Tell us a little bit more about your background and how your interest in garments arose.
Although I see myself as an artist working across multiple mediums, fashion touches me insofar that it has a very special relationship with the body. We can’t disengage the medium from a sense of touch; and in that way, it is a very haptic, sensual, corporeal medium. It holds such an intimate place in our daily lives… we touch it every day. I love its hyper sensuality. My work is interested in material culture; our consumption and interaction with materials lead us to embody them. We are permeable, and the things we touch and hold are personal and reveal our value systems.
Textile making, on the other hand, to me is about eroticism, which teaches me fundamental practices for accepting and approaching an unwieldy life. Textile making humbly opens up a broader conversation of negotiating, gaining and relinquishing control. It’s so beautiful really how something so seemingly literal, physical and immediate can present us with opportunities for patience, sensitivity and love that float us above the specifics of day-to-day living that sometimes keep us in trapped and selfish, separate plasms. In textile making, we are the dictatorial subjects manipulating materials.
But in this open dialogue with the things we touch and wrestle with, we are also sometimes rendered the object (not in control) when the material tells us where it does and doesn't want to go. An ongoing balancing and sharing of power – or an empathetic conversation –, the kind of dynamic that happens with all relationships that we hold or build with other things, people, places. Textile making grows me in so many ways – in the world that I create for myself and in the world that I share with everyone and everything else.
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Your diaphanous knits with traditional techniques drawn from your heritage, like Chinese knotting, reveal ethical sourcing. Graduating with honours from the sustainability program Parsons executed and considering that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world, how do you approach this topic and what impact do you want to make?
Sustainability in gaining traction in fashion now, but to me, it’s part of a broader ideology considering ‘others’, intimacy and empathy. In fashion, sustainability can refer to pollution and waste, thinking about the relationships between the products we create and the lives that are intertwined and involved with them. In this regard, I make my work community conscious, and in the least environmentally polluting way. Another approach to sustainability is to create work with value and longevity in a world of superfluous things. My work with Chinese knot harnesses are elaborations and recontextualisations of a timeless culture that existed long before me. To keep a culture alive, it has to evolve. 
How do you choose the materials used for your creations?
When I am throwing an event like my live garment installations, I source my materials locally to make sure my final work is authentic, sensitive and relatable to its environment. For example, in my Singapore show (on December 2018), I sourced local Singaporean hawthorn and rose drink; in the New York show on September 2018, I sourced local wet hawthorn berries from Chinatown in Manhattan. In Taiwan, I look at ingredients deeply embedded and richly implicated in local culture like binglang (betelnuts). That’s something I’m working on in my upcoming Taipei show this year.
I also favour natural fibres that are often less taxing on the environment like silk. I source from companies whose ethics I align with; for example, using yarn recycled from silk sari textile waste handspun in women coops in India, or using peace silk preventing the killing of silkworms in production; or small business rather than large corporations. I also have an archive of vintage silks and textiles, like vintage Japanese kimono silk (some patched and mended), that I collect from my time in Asia and use in my work.
I feel that your work embodies a loving vision on complicated topics such as sustainability or faceted identities. Maybe because of your recurrent deep red hue. What significance does this colour have in your work?
All sensory things are emotional; red is emotional and human to me.
“Beauty is a story of resilience. What gets to be understood as beautiful in this world is a deeply political, ethical issue.”
“Work is very personal to me. My life experience and emotions are often overpowering and for that reason, my work will be based on who I am and the situations that I come across” you told Sand Magazine. What do eroticism and sensuality mean to you and therefore to your work?
Our bodies are rooted in the corporeal. Sensory information is crucial to experience and being alive, and I focus on that in my work – touching, drinking, eating, etc.
You recently hosted your first solo show in your hometown, Singapore. As a reinvention of the conventional fashion show, you arranged a live performance of a reimagined ritual, the tea ceremony. How did you conceive this new type of fashion presentation?
Fashion marketing constantly looks into ‘lifestyle’. I look into authentic happenings in life. The show incorporated elements of ritual, taste, culture, visual language – fragments that build a world many of us grow up in but rarely see presented viscerally in fashion. This live garment installation takes the form of a cult mass wedding with a casting of POC, femme, queer individuals as they perform a reimagined ritualistic tea ceremony naturally dyeing garments, handcrafted textiles and Chinese knot harnesses with red hawthorn tea as the performers leak liquid from their mouths.
Empathy is the underlying emotion; a spiritual glue that holds my work together. The show focused on exploring a certain type of emotion that I believe echoes many of our embodied experiences, particularly within our politicized bodies. The performance echoes our intimate relationship with culture and ancestral knowledge. How do we process or embody legacies passed down generationally within our own transcultural realities? There is a life and a story in all elements in the show, casting, set design, object and person – all moving parts.
The live garment installation that took place in 21 Moonstone, as you just said, echoes the form of a cult mass wedding between people of colour, femme and queer individuals. What were the crucial topics you wanted to put on the table?
In terms of casting, I wanted us to see diverse dignified bodies loved and adored. Beauty is a story of resilience. What gets to be understood as beautiful in this world is a deeply political, ethical issue.
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On your exhibition, you collaborated with London-based Singaporean photographer Nicole Ngai, whose imagery deals with the intimate gaze, and perfectly pairs with your philosophy of work. How did you both meet? Was it the first time you worked together?
We first met because my best friend’s sister, dancer and model Chantel Foo, lives with her in London. Together with my good friend (New York-based performance artist) Sher Chew, Chantel, Nicole, and I created something beautiful together. It was the first time but Nicole is someone I really respect; I love her work, her choice to photograph diverse individuals with love and dignity. I love keeping things in the family we are all building together.
What do you want people to know you for?
Work that builds and merges worlds softly, sensuously.
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