I’ve never met artist Ada Chen in person, but when we connect for a recent late night phone interview, it feels like we’re instantly on the same page. After all, we’re both Chinese-American millennials—an identity so rarely discussed or represented in media and pop culture that it can feel like a shared secret when it’s mutual.
Within the first half hour, our conversation hops from the sociology of Instagram to San Francisco’s rapid gentrification to the question of why it’s so hard for Chinese parents to
apologize. Knowing Chen’s work, though, the topics make sense.
Earlier this year, Chen—a recent graduate of Pratt University’s BFA program—began garnering recognition for her politically charged jewelry designs: earrings, necklaces, and other unclassifiable adornments that use humor to candidly reflect what it’s like to be a young Chinese-American woman today. Now, following the excited reception of her early work, the artist is plotting what will come next. She recently moved into a new studio space in Brooklyn, and she’ll be featured as an emerging artist at this year’s esteemed MAD symposium in conjunction with New York City Jewelry Week on November 15. Alongside her friend Taisha Carrington, who will also be speaking, Chen plans on infusing the conversation—and the contemporary jewelry space in general—with unexpected social critique.
“Social commentary is usually pretty digital; you consume it quickly,” Chen explains. “And jewelry is not something that takes two seconds to make—it takes hours and hours —and I think putting [social commentary] in jewelry makes the concept more permanent. It's just a different way of expressing social commentary than I've seen."
Her voice trails off a bit, before she breaks into an easy laugh: “It's usually just memes on the internet.”
Memes, it turns out, are a key inspiration for Chen. And Chen’s text message earrings are a perfect example of how she incorporates meme-like aesthetics and tone into her art. Made out of laser-cut acrylic, each earring features a flurry of text messages bubbles containing actual conversations that Chen has had with men on the internet. On one earring, a man says that he’s “never been with an asian girl before,” and that he’s “kinda excited,” to which Chen responds with upside-down smiley faces. On the other, a man asks, “Are you Asian or Chinese?” to which Chen replies, “Im chinese but chinese is a typa asian so.”
Chen first created the piece as part of her senior thesis project, a collection of sculptural jewelry centered on the Chinese-American experience. After she shared photos of the earrings on the internet, the design went viral for their cutting depiction of the ignorant fetishization Asian-American women encounter on a day-to-day basis. Chen calls the earrings her version of a musical “one hit wonder”; she’s almost grown to resent them for their singular popularity. But they do, at least, aptly exemplify Chen’s overall approach to her work: Creating designs that are personal, not pandering.
“My text message earrings, I've seen them going around, and [some people are] like, the messages are stupid but the idea is great. And I’m like, well, first of all, you looked at my collection,” Chen says. “I didn't make this for you. I made this for me and for people like me, because I feel like we don't get that a lot. They just happened to go viral.”
As someone who can relate, that specificity—those pointed, almost painfully relatable reflections of the Chinese-American experience—are what make Chen’s work compelling. In one two-piece set, for instance, a silver grill is engraved with Chinese writing that translates to “Speak Chinese, we’re in America” and a complementary nameplate earring-necklace (think dangling earrings that connect underneath your chin like a chain) reads “Speak English, we’re in America.” The odd pairing rings with the particular, second-generation American indignation of being excluded from the culture you’re born into while simultaneously feeling shame for trying to shed your own culture through assimilation.
“I mean, as a child, I said shit [like ‘Speak English’] to my friends because I was embarrassed. I didn't want people to hear us speaking Chinese,” Chen explains. “And then the ‘Speak Chinese’ is what I would say to anyone who says that [to us]. Because it's fucking hard to learn Chinese, so why don’t you try to learn it? But also, it points to how my parents would always say, ‘Speak Chinese’ because they thought I would lose my Chinese. And, in a way, I did.”
Albeit perhaps unexpected, Jewelry is an apt medium for Chen’s messages: It’s loud, confrontational, and refuses to be contained in a white cube. Chen says she’s interested in making art “for us,” not the white-washed art world. After moving to New York for college, the San Francisco native felt a stark contrast between the large Chinese community she’d grown up surrounded by and her environment at Pratt. “Because Pratt was based in Brooklyn, it was not super Chinese,” says Chen. “There were rarely any Asian Americans. Because if you think about it, whose parents encourage their Asian child to go to art school?”
Despite stereotypes about Asian parents, Chen says that her own are fully supportive of her work and career choices. Still, certain patterns of behavior in our families feel almost universal—and Chen isn’t interested in shying away from that. For her next project, Chen plans on creating a piece around the idea of airing out “dirty laundry”—underscoring topics that Chinese families refrain from discussing openly.
“You know the laundry rack that hangs and has the clothespins on it?” she asks. “I feel like it's super Asian. I thought, why don’t I just put pictures or symbols that represent everything Chinese people avoid talking about in their families on clothes hanging from the laundry clothespin rack? It’s kind of like, bringing them out in the open because there are [important] things—like depression and mental health—that no one ever talks about.”
Alcoholism, gambling, and sex are among other taboo topics rarely breached in Chinese-American families, creating a tension between Americanized children who want to have these discussions and parents who feel uncomfortable doing so. Chen, for instance, says she has never discussed sex with her parents. “They, like, don’t even know that I touch boys. And I don’t want them to know,” she jokes.
“Even like, affection,” Chen adds. “Saying ‘I love you’ is not a thing. It’s shown in other ways—like food. You never say ‘sorry,’ either. When [my parents and I] were mad at each other, we never admitted defeat. There are a lot of taboo things that no one ever talks about.”
Now, Chen is ready to use her art to encourage open dialogue—about both the realities and misconceptions of what it means to be a Chinese-American millennial. “I really do love making jewelry for people to own and for Asians in America who relate to my art,” says Chen. “I feel like there's a lot that we haven’t been able to say yet—we’ve been a little silent. So, the whole point of my collection was to make art for us.”
“It’s for us,” she repeats for emphasis, breaking the silence once again.