“Culture can be so incredibly fragile yet permanent,” An Interview with Monyee Chau

Transforming their art through modern culture and familial ancestry, Monyee Chau talks to the Lonely Arts Club about DIY art exhibitions, navigating the “in-between space”, and pushing artistic boundaries both by diving inward and expanding outward along the way.

Hi Monyee, welcome to the Lonely Arts Club! Your art explores connecting with your ancestry in a thought-provoking and impactful way. When did you first start experimenting with your bold style and how did it morph into what it is today?

When I first started school at Cornish College of The Arts I started as a painter and illustrator.

I started school being interested in making a lot of feminist work, but during that time it felt very surface level to me. Like every other young artist, I wanted to make work that could help change the world for the better. My mentor Bonnie Biggs really opened up the door for my personal work when she told me that it wouldn’t be possible to help the world if I am not able to understand myself to start with.

My art demands to live through different mediums because materials all have different ways of telling stories. My art is meant to reflect my family and my story and that lives through different facets, the way that our culture and language does too.

Thus my first interaction with glass was an ability to talk about the labor that went into my ama’s (maternal grandmother) dumplings she would craft for me by experiencing her labor but through my own processes, and speaking to the idea that culture can be so incredibly fragile yet permanent.

“A Day’s Work of Labor and Love: Xiaolong Bao” 2017

In your work, you’re defining a new culture for yourself – combining Chinese and American culture. In your artistic experimentation, what have you found? Any unexpected surprises?

I think we often forget that we define our culture as much as culture defines us.

I spent a lot of time trying to define what it meant to never feel Asian enough and never feel American enough. I wanted to explore what it meant to navigate this in-between space, but it was a huge question that always felt looming; “Am I half this? Half that?”

If you ask these questions to any other Asian American we have similar experiences, but we are all so incredibly different.

“Aiyeh’s passage” 2018, found cardboard

My biggest realization came with the understanding that my experience is a whole new one, that I am not a fraction of different cultures, but rather defining a new one. My relationship with my family, my language, my culture is not one that every Asian American has.

My art is no longer describing to others what the Asian American experience is, but rather my experience I have with the world I live in.

Art is in the eye of the beholder. Has anyone ever interpreted your art differently than intended? What happened?

People believe that I just create “Asian art”. I’ve had people receive my work in a way that dwindles it back to a message that is more, “I am a Chinese person” rather than the complexities and intersections of the life I live as a queer, second generation, Taiwanese/Cantonese artist and I am doing this work to heal me and the struggles I face in the society I live in.

I am not here to share my story for people just to reduce me to a simple identity, but rather for them to be able to hear me, and reflect on themselves and the aspects of themselves that built them as well.

“If you don’t share the dog’s head with your children…” 2017

You have done DIY exhibitions around Seattle. What kind of preparation does that entail, and what kind of responses do you get from it?

DIY exhibitions are so fun. They are genuine and community building, and I am thankful to have such experiences under my belt.

They are also no easy feat. The preparations for DIY exhibitions are extensive; finding a space (especially in Seattle), finding artists, promoting with flyers and social media, installing, sound, the actual event, and deinstall, are both physically and emotionally demanding. I started out having a team working on doing monthly shows, and this work is not something you do for money. But making art isn’t for money either.

These shows allowed us all to learn the skills from scratch and gave us opportunities for artists who didn’t believe their work could be hung on a wall in a show. We wanted to give a platform for creatives to do what they love the most. We created new relationships and collaborations by putting artists from different varying practices together, and it was always a beautiful moment of community building.

“Greetings From… What Are You?” 2018 at LoveCityLove for the show FWD by Shaun Kardinal

Who are some of your favorite Seattle artists?

I want to plug most of my school family here. I am honored to be able to study along some of the city’s wonderful emerging artists, it’s been such an honor learning and growing with some of my best and closest friends who are creatives. People who have personally stuck with me through thick and thin and I am honored to be making work in this city with them.

Alex Britt is an incredible queer photographer who’s been exploring their indigenous identity through performance. (@alexbrittphoto) Alexis L. Silva, working as a photographer, heart-wrenching performance artist, and curator. (@brujapapi) Mari Nagaoka, an unmistakably talented artist with ballpoint imagery exploring erotica. (@gravewine) And Nikita Ares, an artist with such a beautiful spirit blessing the abstract world with her colors. (@kita.licious)

Are you working on any big projects this year?

I have a lot of things happening this year! At the moment I designed the 48th Northwest Folklife Festival poster for the exciting festival at Seattle Center, I have a show with the wonderful Brothers & Co (@brothers.and.co) for “Remnants, Leftovers Vol 2” on March 7th through the 29th at the Vera Project, and my solo show “Home Away From Home” at The Vestibule with a reception on April 20th, and open studio hours from April 3-18th.

Sneak peek at a piece for Monyee’s solo show at The Vestibule on April 20th

What is your proudest artistic achievement to date?

The proudest artistic achievement is all of the women of color who come up to me and tell me that my work inspires them to be able to make work about themselves. I truly believe that imposter syndrome is something so insidious to the communities of qtpoc, and it’s quite literally the biggest honor to be able to hear that I can give confidence to my communities that our stories are vital to healing as a whole, and genuinely want to be heard. Just because you don’t see yourself reflected in the art world, doesn’t mean you don’t belong there.

Monyee Chau (she/they) is a Taiwanese/Cantonese American artist whose work explores the ideas of decolonization, ancestral healing, and intersectional feminism through labor in multiple processes of art. She is passionate about redefining the experience of being a second-generation immigrant in America and building community through shared foods and storytelling.
cover image by Lauren Max, all images used with permission by the artist

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