Where stereotypes become prototypes: it’s Ada Chen, the artist transposing the lived experiences of Asian-American women into contemporary talking pieces. Reflecting on her merits, Chen addresses the duality of her past success - comments on creative expectations, the ambivalence of social media and an adoration for knitting to follow.
Hey Ada, could you tell us about the main ethos behind your art?
The main ethos behind my art is my Chinese American identity. My art from two years ago focused heavily on my blossoming pride in my experience as a Chinese born American. I wanted to find community with Asian Americans and AsAm artists through my work, thereby creating what I called expensive Chinese American memes to relate to those who share my experiences. My work has now evolved into reckoning with the duality of being Chinese and American and almost being ashamed that I have to identify as any kind of American. I also feel like I have now allowed myself to make art that is not so explicitly about being Chinese American, but I know that whatever I make will always be put in the Asian American Art category.
Would you say the popularity of your work comes with a conflicting duality? Although honing a community through this shared experience, was it disconcerting that so many individuals within the Asian community could relate to the racial encounters addressed in your work?
Yes, I would definitely say that the popularity of my work comes with the conflicting duality of finding community through racial encounters we share. However, my work was to not only supposed address these issues, but also inspire my community to laugh with me and grow past these experiences. Also, finding community in any way is helpful for us all to connect and find solidarity.
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In the aftermath of the hype surrounding your Text Message Earrings, and graced with a greater audience and growing spotlight, did you feel there was an onus on you to create more statement pieces?
I did feel some sort of responsibility to make more statement pieces after my Text Message Earrings blew up, but it has taken a lot of time and reflection to realise that I should just make whatever I want. My artistic duty should centre my needs of fulfillment, and sometimes that also includes statement pieces that speak for a community. I struggled with having to focus on production pieces so I could pay rent and buy groceries when I initially transitioned to self-employment because I felt like I had no time to devote to statement pieces. I still haven’t made a statement piece in a very long time, but I think I have accepted that I can only do so much as one person. I am now actively devoting more time to make work that fulfills my creative needs while making work that pays the bills. I am also actively reevaluating my impact in my community.
As someone who often creates art for charity and social causes rather than entirely for salable purpose. Do you think capitalism impedes the inherent feeling of joy and liberation the creation of art is meant to evoke?
Capitalism 1000000000000% impedes the inherent feeling of joy and liberation the creation of art is meant to evoke. I make art for charity and social causes because I’ve decided that I want the impact of my work to be more tangible. If I’m going to be making art for money, I might as well share the money I make as I also share my art.
You’ve recently organised and partaken in the Queen’s Solidarity Festival, from my understanding the event parallels a mutual aid movement: could you tell us some more about the event?
The Queens Solidarity Festival was an event that my friend Trasonia and I organised to highlight and celebrate grassroots efforts that have started in Queens. Trasonia initially invited me to help them organise a Black-Asian Solidarity event months before, but we decided that solidarity in every way is important to emphasise. We wanted to make it more like a block party and host performances and an art trade. I ended up applying for and receiving the NYFA City Artist Corps grant to pay community organisations to table, fund some workshops, compensate performers, and pay artists for their contributions to the art trade. Food, drinks, groceries, books, art, and workshops were all free. Historically and presently, mutual aid has assisted their communities in direct and effective ways, and we wanted to create a space where people could learn about the resources available to them and ways they can also get involved.
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You’ve spoken previously on the lack of representation of Asian women in the media. Growing up in this space of inadequate representation, where did you find your muse as a young creative?
I didn’t realise the lack of representation of Asian women in media until I was in college. When I was younger, I just consumed whatever media was available to me, but I don’t remember aspiring to be like anyone on TV or in magazines. The path that I followed to become an artist was not presented to me through media, but through my parents’ encouragement of my artistic talents. Though it might sound unconventional for the “immigrant parent” narrative, my parents always supported me when I wanted to attend my magnet arts high school and subsequently my arts college.
There is a withstanding cliché of college to be a place of self-discovery and reinvention, yet the deliverance of structural racism through these institutions can craft a rather different story for marginalised communities. How was your own experience of college?
College actually was a place of self-discovery for me, but not because the institution itself encouraged any part of that for me. The most difficult part of going to an art college and being able to make art about my simultaneous self-discovery because when I presented my work to my mostly white professors, I didn’t feel like they could understand my experience and guide me in my journey. I felt more connected to my BIPOC peers and they helped me through my self-discovery. It was also interesting in terms of sharing a space with others who were in different financial situations because these were my first direct encounters with people who came from significantly more privileged backgrounds. I also had to reckon with my own privilege because I was lucky enough to have my parents find a way to pay my tuition, while I had friends who had to go to enormous lengths to pay for a semester’s tuition.
One of your former projects encouraged conversation surrounding the fetishisation of Asian women in the digital sphere. Given the discussion of racial-bias algorithms in dating apps, alongside the undeniable fetish-encouraging use of ‘race’ filters. Do you think dating apps create a shameless interface for these remarks to be made without accountable consequence?
Dating apps simply replicate real life dating scenarios when it comes to “allowing” people to make fetishistic comments. Is it problematic of me to think that holding people accountable is work that extends beyond an app’s ability to do so? I have maybe only a month’s worth of dating app experience, so maybe I am not completely grasping how significant the racial-bias algorithms are and how they work. I can see how they are potentially beneficial to BIPOC app users who do not want to date outside their race, but I am also not sure that they actually function in this way. If these filters and algorithms benefit race-fetishisers more, then by all means they should just not exist. How hard is it to just ban someone from an app when they say, for example, something that includes the phrase “Asian pussy”? I’m sure these apps can at least hold people accountable in this way as much as they do for people trying to ask for money from their dates. In general, I think there needs to be a societal shift in understanding the harm that these race fetishes cause so that we can discourage the icky racial comments from being uttered in the first place.
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Your adoration for memes and internet culture is no secret. As someone with a large social media following do you ever find there is a pressure to constantly be saying something?
I always feel pressure to constantly be saying something on my platform. I have in recent months, however, come to accept that I really have no obligation to any of these people that I don’t even know. I have shared a lot of mutual aid efforts and infographics in light of last year’s protests, but I have found myself spending less time on Instagram and consequently sharing less. I have also become more mindful about sharing infographics about world news and human rights because I feel like I should only be sharing what I understand myself. I appreciate when others do so and I can learn about these causes, but I also don’t feel like learning publicly. Over the past few years I have become less personal in my posts on social media because I can’t be bothered anymore and to be honest, I post for validation most times and now my real life support system validates me enough so that I don’t as much from my phone screen.
From moments as early as the Suffragette’s movement to the more recent Tax the Rich dress escapade: the intersections of politics and fashion are heavily intertwined. How do you think technology is changing the narrative of political fashion today?
I honestly have no idea how to answer this question because I don’t know how much I believe that fashion affects politics. The Tax the Rich dress was so cringey. First of all, rich people just should not exist. Second of all, rich people have all of the power in this country and we all know that they will never tax themselves, so we should just abolish the system that allows them to have this power anyways. If anything, technology has created more demand for fashion that photographs well with a statement because images travel a lot faster now. Raising awareness is not for nothing.
Inconsistencies between brand’s commercial campaigns and actual supportive actions displays the drive of complete corporate incentive. Exemplified with the launch of numerous Lunar New Year campaigns by companies who failed to speak out against rising anti-Asian hate crimes. Is this performative trope a sentiment you have addressed within any of your projects?
I have not addressed this performative trope in any of my projects, but it is definitely worth discussing! Personally, I can’t dedicate a whole project to this issue because these performances exist on so many levels in the system that we live in that I would not be able to concisely represent it in an art piece. I haven’t made a lot of statement pieces in recent years because I have to spend time making money, but also because my understanding of my identity as an East Asian body in America has evolved into such complex concerns that I’m not sure I can visually represent them. This same understanding is also always evolving so it’s hard to choose one solid concept to physically create. I don’t have to make everything into art, though.
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With the creation of such statement pieces you must be met with an abundance of feedback. How does negative feedback affect you? And, if anything, does it drive you to create more?
I have so much more positive feedback then negative feedback that I don’t usually feel discouraged to create. When I do receive negative feedback, I usually consider it anyways and try to see the truth in it. Sometimes, the negative feedback comes from a place that simply does not apply to my vision, so I accept that someone views my work negatively, but I still feel solid in my work. I’m not sure negative feedback drives me to create more - I think it doesn’t affect me too much. Feedback that may have come off as negative at first could just be constructive criticism and I happily keep it in mind moving forward.
During lockdown you debuted some knitting projects on your Instagram - including a dress - which I love by the way! Do you prefer to keep these as personal projects rather than business ventures?
I am really obsessed with knitting right now! And thank you! I have considered many times ways to integrate my knitting into my business because I would love to share my knit creations with people who will love them. Hand knitting just takes for-fucking-ever and is not cost-effective, so I honestly just can’t sell them. If I charged what I should be charging for the time I spend on these knits, they would cost thousands. I know the prices would be unreasonable, so I’ve kept them as personal projects for now. My keeping knitting out of my business might be why I’m so obsessed with it because my fulfillment in creating these pieces is so pure and intimately mine. I recently bought a small circular knitting machine that can apparently crank out beanies in 20 minutes, so I might be integrating my knits into my business after all.
Following from this, are there any upcoming projects in the works?
I am planning to knit a lot of beanies with my new circular knitting machine and I want to knit an ao dai inspired sweater. I’m seriously just obsessively watching knitting Youtube tutorials. I also want to make some one-of-a-kind earpicks to sell because they’re so fun to make. I have a lot of ideas that might never make it out there. I eventually want to make a chain with star-shaped links. I’ve been planning for a year in my head a mandarin collar style choker made of soldered chain with a custom clasp that will be able to host any medley of charms (I’m envisioning Peek-A-Poohs).
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