thick, 2019

thick, March 21, 2019 - May 20, 2019
Artpace Spring 2019 International Artist-in-Residence Program

Curated by Dr. Deborah Willis

Timeless in the human experience is the desire to change our appearance and it is not limited to our teeth. Grills have been around since seventh century BC with Etruscans living in Italy. Etruscan women were the first to wear gold teeth and what can be categorized as present day grills. They were beyond dentistry adornment and served as physical markers of class, privilege, and power. They have been around since the beginning of human history and have crisscrossed the world and are multicultural.

My Chinese grandmother, Paw Paw, had bad teeth, barely any really. She lived through the brutal struggles of communism in China and came to the US as a refugee in the 70’s. Her teeth were bad because she couldn’t afford to fix them. After working years in a sewing sweat shop in the bowels of Chinatown in NYC, she got a gold rimmed tooth, and eventually gold teeth. All her friends did and they proudly showed off their shiny, new, gold capped teeth, a symbol of their hard work, of moving up in the world, and the American dream.

I am interested in disentangling the history of objects, examining material culture, and how we consume, adorn, and own present day objects. 

This VICE news article goes into a little more depth about the grill and how it intersects multiple cultures and communities. We place the grills within Black culture but they are multicultural.  I do think the word grill is appropriated (language/slang/pop culture hashtags are appropriated from Black culture) and the object itself exists in hip hop and Black culture without knowledge of its origin story.  I don't want to proclaim the ownership of the grill but to ask questions about it and these can be difficult conversations.  I also come to this as a first generation Chinese American who grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and exist within a third culture (neither fully one or the other).

My grill is a porcelain decorated facade for teeth.  It's rimmed in gold luster and adorned with ceramic decals and decorated like the rims of fine china service ware. The blue lipstick is a nod to blue and white pattern decorations and the global migration of this Asian decorative style.  I thought about how as an Asian woman I have to grit my teeth, play nice, and never show face.  I grit my teeth and flare my lips to express my frustration that we have not overcome more as women. I wanted to show that porcelain, like women, is often perceived as fragile and delicate but it is strong and resilient. 

"Hit Me With Your Best Shot" is made from collectible, editioned Lenox, USA china commemorating the White House of the Confederacy. These were made in the USA in 1971 and designed by the Trustees of the White House of the Confederacy Committee and the construction of the new Museum of the Confederacy.  There are about 10-12 different designs and I purchased the plates from eBay and they all come from sellers in Richmond, Virginia. They come in special boxes with pamphlets telling a brief history of the scene or general depicted with no mention of the Civil War, the enslaved people, or Black oppression.  One complete set of these plates are on display at the Smithsonian. 

When I was creating this piece last year, I listened to debates and watched a Confederate statue be removed from downtown San Antonio and a local school go through the process of changing their name from Robert E. Lee high school to Legacy of Educational Excellence (LEE). San Antonio is a minority majority city but the power structures are still white. 

The images of these plates are known people, places, and things that played significant roles in the Confederacy and the oppression of Black people.  The oppression of people of color continued after the Civil War and the histories, stories, and lynching of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and Jews, in the American West and nationwide. This oppression and ideology continues to align with white supremacy, KKK, khaki brigade, voter suppression, anti-Semitism, police brutality and so much more to list. 

I worked with a water jet cutting business in San Antonio to cut out the main image of the plate - essentially erase them and remove them from the collectable, and dismantle their power and value in the object.  I then transformed the cut images by painting MAGA hats on them to show how history of oppression is repeating itself and we have a President that is igniting it.  The images become charms on a bracelet, a collection of monuments taken down.  They are attached to a Cubin linked iced chain bracelet that I purchased in Chinatown, NYC on hip hop jewelry street.  Each store has names of every hip hop/pop artist who has visited their stores.  They are Chinese owned and operated and complete fakes made to look very real.  Each piece has hand set stones and after the purchase the seller stamps "14K" on the back to give the appearance of genuine gold and diamond jewelry. 

Like the grill and this cut plate jewelry, I am interested in the Asian labor in creating objects of cultural ownership and significance that exist in complicated conversations about pop culture.