Sophie Teh’s work doesn’t just speak, it invites conversation. Having grown up in Malaysia and now being based in Barcelona and London, her art is the culmination of various cultural experiences. She uses her craft to discuss her personal cultural identity, portraying topics such as the objectification of Asian women and the Stop Asian Hate movement. In this interview, she discusses pursuing her first passion, making art that provokes, and Asian representation in the industry. Get to know her work personally in her upcoming exhibition with Tangent Projects at SWAB Barcelona from October 6 until 9.
Firstly, could you briefly introduce yourself and what you do?
I’m Sophie Teh, I’m a painter and installation artist. In many aspects of my life, not just art, I am a late bloomer. I became an artist later in life and I consider myself largely self-taught. My interest lies in cultural perception and friction. For example, my recent work draws analogies between our attitudes to food and our physical bodies with other phenomena around socio-cultural friction.
Your recent work uses food to represent your experience with cultural identity. What do you think is the relationship between food and Asian culture?
I used to think that the Chinese were uniquely obsessed with food and identified themselves through what they eat. Of course, this is not true because many cultures also take their food very seriously. For example, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French epicure said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Much of the Chinese’s food obsession is linked to a long and complicated history of famine. Thus, the availability of food is associated with all things good and the celebration of the continuation of life.
In relationships with food, I also observe new food attitudes that stem from consumerism (like supersizing) or biohacking (like fasting) that operate beyond the confines of tradition. Food, within or beyond culture, is so universal yet at the same time loaded with cultural, social and emotional connotations. I explore the appeal of food and the act of eating, driven by separate motives to talk about different topics ranging from ambition to sexism.
Specifically, in Killing Time and Object of Desire, you use sausage sculptures to depict your personal cultural experiences. Why sausages?
Sausages are essentially chains, and to put it perversely, chains of meat encased in intestines. The cultural normalisation of such a strange food concept is fascinating to me. The sausages’ oblong bloated forms are incredibly versatile in three dimensions.
In Killing Time, I was looking for a painting medium that was different from the flat canvas surface to narrate my childhood in Malaysia. I wanted a form that conveyed the flow of time, of progression and sequence that brought to mind the passing of time. The sausage form was what I felt worked. Secondly, I linked the process of stuffing sausages to the act of sacrificing the present for the sake of future gratification, which was what I did in the 1980s as part of my childhood.
In Objects of Desire, the sausage form is more literal. I made life-sized sausages to display in a shop window to represent the objectification of Asian women, like food in Chinese restaurant windows.
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You were born in Ipoh (Malaysia) and now you work in Barcelona and London. What is the biggest difference you’ve experienced living as an Asian woman in Southeast Asia versus Europe? How have these experiences changed your perspective on Asian culture?
When I moved to London about 20 years ago, I sought change. The main differences I noticed within a short time of living in Europe were that I had access to wider economic opportunities and more independence. In other words, the differences I was sensitive to at the time were socio-economic. My perspective on Asian culture only changed in a meaningful way during the pandemic and with the Stop Asian Hate movement. The series of events at that time helped me connect with other Asian artists and thinkers, and to embrace my culture more strongly. It created a desire to express my cultural experiences in my work.
Before you became an artist, you had set your passion aside to pursue architecture and business. Was that a difficult decision to make and what inspired you to return to art?
I probably started the gradual process of moving away from making art at around 7 years old when I started formal schooling. At the time, I didn’t know it was possible to pursue a career as an artist. A few years ago, I felt a burning platform beneath me. Acknowledging for the first time that my time and energy are not unlimited, I decided to take charge of my life to give my first passion in life a serious go. I recall this was after I met a family friend who was a contemporary of my grandfather’s. He started painting after retirement and achieved success in his 70s. My late grandfather was also a good painter but did not take his pursuit beyond a hobby. The urgency I felt then was strong enough to push me to give up my old attachments and certainties to return to art.
You’ve talked about Asian women often being viewed as an object of desire and your art combats this by “provoking thought rather than pointing fingers.” Why do you think this is the most effective way to get your message across?
The spa shootings in Atlanta in 2021 were a tragic moment that highlighted the extent to which some men viewed Asian women as things. I made Objects of Desire in reaction to this incident to draw attention to the theme of exploitation, giving it visibility. When I started thinking about making the installation, I wanted something visually provocative and outlandish to draw attention to the experience of being objectified. I also wanted to focus on the act of objectification rather than the victim or the perpetrator to draw attention to microaggressions that support other more serious acts of aggression, like a pyramid. The sausage was a useful representative tool.
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In your latest exhibition here in Barcelona, titled Have You Eaten Yet? in Mutuo gallery, you explore the relationship between the literal consumption of food and the figurative consumption of female Asian bodies, the fact that they are objectified and fetishised, again, just as if they were food. This is a really complicated issue to explore, and you do so in such a clear and effective way through your paintings and sculptures. Do you find it easier to talk about such complex subjects through your art rather than actually discuss them out loud?
Part of the role art plays is to make complex topics accessible, and the artist should, in my opinion, be as involved as their work. I make work which I like talking about and try not to be intentionally enigmatic. Furthermore, the self-stereotyping of Asians as not inclined to rock the boat or speak up has eroded, in my opinion, from what I have seen in my own circles in recent years.
In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in Asian representation in certain areas of the arts like film and television. Do you see the same happening in the visual arts?
I am really happy to finally see this happening in film and television and cannot wait to see more to come. I was thrilled that Everything Everywhere All At Once, released this year, has been a critical and commercial success. In the arts, I think Chinese artists like Ai Wei Wei and Caí Guo Qiang have achieved superstar levels of success and are already household names. They belong to an elite group of Asian artists who are mostly male.
According to the National Museum of Women in The Arts, male Asian artists make up eight per cent of works represented in major United States art museums. So, there is some representation of male Asian artists. I would love to see female Asian visual artists gain a similar level of recognition; exciting work is being made by this group.
How do you see your work contributing toward Asian representation in the visual arts space? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind?
I am by no means a lone practitioner working on an agenda that is unique. I look at my work as part of a collective of artists all working towards the same social goals and encouraging one another even though we might not be officially associated. I am still in the early stage of my career, but an interesting thought came to my mind the other day about legacy. Because of our capabilities to make content on the internet, all artists essentially do not need an agent of representation in the traditional sense. We are all capable of creating and shaping our own legacies for future audiences. In other words, our work can still be discovered beyond our lifetimes. I do not need to do what is fashionable at this time. This has shaped how I think about the work I create and how I curate it. I would like to be remembered as being an artist who deals with cultural topics through unexpected humour and with a long and interesting career.
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Although East Asian culture has gained a lot of attraction through K-pop and anime, other Asian experiences have not received the same recognition. As someone who grew up in Malaysia, how do you hope to uplift Southeast Asian identities in your work?
My work is in the realm of examining misreadings and alternative cultural perceptions. There is a strong element of play in my ideas along with experimentation. Inherently what I make is not aimed at uplifting identities. I don’t think my work at the moment goes beyond my own cultural experience – perhaps it does indirectly. Also, in 10 years, when I have a body of work in this area, it would be easier to speak retrospectively on my contribution to the topic of modern Chinese/Southeast Asian Identity.
Lastly, why is it important to have more Asian representation in the visual art sphere, and in the arts more generally?
I think it is important for the sake of diversity of thought and opinion. What art could potentially be, and the stories it could tell, would be richer with more representation of not just Asian artists but artists from all backgrounds. I think there is an appetite for different voices in the arts, more so now than ever before.
If I were to be more specific about Asian representation, personally, I would like more opportunities to learn more about my own culture and history through the arts. I admit I do not know enough about Chinese and Malaysian culture and history myself and there are many things the arts can teach me through its magical ways.
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