There's been a lot of argument recently about who gets to make Asian food, but often lost in the debate over cultural appropriation is the importance of preserving Asian-American culinary traditions in their own right. These anchoring traditions, shared by professional chefs and home cooks alike, were on ceramicist Stephanie H. Shih's mind when she began to painstakingly sculpt porcelain dumplings at her pottery studio, Gasworks Brooklyn.
"I grew up folding dumplings w all my aunts and grandparents, so it was this really meditative thing for me," Shih told GARAGE last week, adding, "From there, it turned into sculptures of all these things you’d see in Asian-American kitchens—I did a painted sculpture of black vinegar, and the Asian-American community responded so strongly to it because I had chosen this brand everyone would have had in their house in the '80s and 90s. As soon as people saw it they were like, 'Oh my god, that’s the one I remember.'"
Like Domee Shi, whose Pixar short film Bao was inspired by making jiaozi with her mom, Shih draws on her own heritage and familial memories to create her art, sculpting across the Asian-American diaspora; her work includes everything from soy-sauce dishes to Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce to Yakult, the Korean probiotic drink that Netflix rom-com devotees might remember from To All The Boys I've Loved Before (fun fact: the film actually led to a sales boost in Yakult.)
"The ceramics community in Brooklyn is not an especially diverse place—it tends to be a very white space—but ceramics has a long history in Asian culture, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, so it made me start thinking, okay, what are these white artists' connection to this work, and what would it look like if I, an Asian person, made ceramic work that touched on my own heritage?" asks Shih.
Shih's naturalistic food portraits are reminiscient of scaled-down versions of Claes Oldenberg's 1962 Floor Burger, or of the hunger-exploring work of artist Peter Anton, but they function as a kind of sculpted Proustian madeleine, connecting Shih to cultural memories that might otherwise go unnoticed. "I liked the conversation that my work is creating," says Shih, adding, "I often talk about how we’re called Asian-Americans, but there's no place called “Asia-America”; there's no place we can go and only be around other Asian-Americans, so the cultural dialogue around art becomes that space."
Shih doesn't work as a ceramicist full-time—she studied journalism and has a day job a a creative director—and she's quickly been overwhelmed with positive responses to her work. "I started making vessels based on those of the ancient Chinese Qing and Song dynasties, wanting to connect to my own ancestral heritage and see where the work went from there, and at some point I started folding dumplings," explains Shih. "Six dumplings turned into six hundred, it happened out of nowhere. I’ve never been an artist very interested in production pottery—I'm not someone who makes same mug over and over—so it was very surprising to me to be sitting down every night for hours and folding the same thing over and over. It made me feel really connected to this lineage of Asian women doing this type of labor."
While Shih's ceramics career seems to be taking off—her solo exhibition, "Nostalgia for a Nonexistent Homeland," opened at Portland's Wieden+Kennedy gallery this week—there are certain drawbacks to sculpting hyper-naturalistic reproductions of food, she admits. "People have walked by my shows thinking my sculptures were real food, and being like, 'Why are someone's groceries here?'"
Shih's latest show, "假/家: Nostalgia for a Nonexistent Homeland," is
on view through June 3rd at the Wieden+Kennedy Gallery, 224 NW 13th Ave, Portland, OR.