Needles and ink have often been used to tattoo skin with imagery that expresses personal identity, but one artist is using needles and thread instead. Jessica Tang embroiders imagery that illustrates the struggle to define a multifaceted cultural identity. As Tang tells The Creators Project, “The main concept I work with in my art is the duality of being a Chinese-American born female.”
Despite the specific concept of her work, Tang originally found inspiration in an unorthodox art material when she was still in college. “I experimented with materials around me and one day I took a Cup of Noodle container and started sewing into it. Sewing into styrofoam was a bit difficult but I liked the idea so much that I thought, ‘Hey, why not make the entire thing out of fabric?’ I ran with the idea and ended up making a replica of a cup noodle container.”
Tang embraced making incredibly detailed needlework, despite the process being tedious and time consuming. “This then grew into my senior exhibition with an embroidered take out box and two other flat embroidery pieces. After graduating, I wanted to make more replicas so I ended up looking for other objects to copy.”
As Tang continued to work with fabric, she was inspired by the textile patterns featured in the work of Yasunari Inkenaga, and her subject matter shifted from food packaging to another exterior surface; the skin of tattooed women. “I wanted to combine this feminine craft with images of Asian women in suggestive poses,” explains Tang. “The patterns on the skin were to remove the specific Asian features in the original photographs of the women. The Asian textile patterns help to ‘hide’ the girl's identity —it's not clear that these women are Asian, but the patterns help to suggest that they are.” These works explore the similarities between embroidery and tattooing, which are both processes that involve penetrating a surface over and over with a needle. Tang strengthens the connection between embroidered fabric and tattoos further by basing the tattoos on Chinese fabric patterns.
Tang’s work is simultaneously familiar and difficult to place because, while the imagery is easily identifiable, the materials are unexpected. “When I replicate my sculptures I use embroidery to mimic the original object,” explains Tang. “I like that from afar, it looks just like the object, but up close it's actually fabric and thread. When choosing what objects to replicate I look for things that I find are common in my Chinese culture.” Tang attempts to subvert the viewer's expectations in order to reflect her experience with her own identity. “I don't like tea,” says Tang. “I can't read or write Chinese. I don't fall under ‘typical’ Chinese characteristics.”
While the subject matter in Tang’s work might have varied over time, all of her work questions what an exterior can tell you about the content it actually houses. “These objects are Chinese but also American. They simultaneously look like the original object and are not because of its material.”
You can see more of Jessica Tang’s embroidered work on her website.