Wonderland.

ADA CHEN

Meet the artist making viral jewellery calling out Asian stereotypes.

Artist Ada Chen's

Speak English, We’re In America, 2017. Grillz and earring-necklace. Photo by Daniel Terna.

Artist Ada Chen's
Speak English, We’re In America, 2017. Grillz and earring-necklace. Photo by Daniel Terna.

You know when you’re on public transport and you see someone wearing something that makes you do a double take? It may be a cheeky slogan tee or a subliminal-messaging-style logo piece – either way, your attention is held for a split second. Well, Ada Chen’s unmistakable signature pieces provoke a double, treble take, turned full-on stare.

Engraved grillz reading “Speak English, We’re In America”. Bejewelled headpieces that pull the wearer’s eyes sideways. Cringey text message convos from men fetishising Asian women are turned into Instagram-viral drop earrings. The work of artist and jewellery-maker Ada – encapsulated in her college thesis, “Made in Chinese America” – explores her experience as a Chinese-American woman and its lack of representation, but does so with biting, mocking humour.

Her political-social commentary infiltrates her tongue-in-cheek creations, and looks at everything from beauty standards, to Trump America, relationships, gendered experiences of Asian men and women, as well as widespread stereotypes.

We chatted to the artist below…

Ada Chen - earrings
Ada Chen - earrings
Speak English, We’re In America, 2017. Grillz and earring-necklace. Photo by Daniel Terna.

How did you start out making jewellery? 
I started making small wire-wrapped and beaded jewellery as a hobby in high school, but I didn’t think to pursue it until I applied to colleges as a fashion major and decided the fashion industry wasn’t for me anymore. I still wanted to stay in some sort of 3-dimensional design and decided to pursue jewellery.

What made you want to weave social commentary into your art?
I decided to weave social commentary, specifically that which relates to my identity, because I was never satisfied with creating art that was purely aesthetic and formal. I wanted to create more conceptual pieces that could hold someone’s attention for longer. While social media has been immensely conducive to discussing social issues especially regarding American race relations, I had been in my formative years in college where I was trying to figure out my own identity and I didn’t see much about being Asian-American.

What’s the story behind the text message earrings?
I’d posted the screenshot of the green text messages on Twitter a while ago because it was both funny and ridiculous. I’d heard too many comments that non-Asian men have said to me about me being Asian within an hour of meeting me, so I wanted to point out these conversations to address the plague of Asian fetishes.

I read that “Speak English, we’re in America”, which is engraved onto the grillz, was something you had actually regretted saying to your friends a long time ago. What made you want to mix this sentiment with a fashion item like grillz?
Using grillz – which has origins in hip-hop culture – as a vessel to convey my messages seemed to me a perfect way to illustrate the American culture that I grew up knowing, since I am indeed American. Chinese-American culture is an amalgamation itself and has become its own unique experience in that way.

Artist Ada Chen's

“Chink” Eyepiece, 2018.

Artist Ada Chen's
“Chink” Eyepiece, 2018.

The “Breaking Stereotypes” drum toys are fantastic [one has a cat to address how women are portrayed as exotic objects, and one has a shrimp to address male stereotypes] – what made you want to break down the Asian experience even further into gender?
Gender is just another facet of the Asian-American experience that deserves discussion. But while I portrayed a single aspect of how gender affects the Asian-American identity, I have not addressed the spectrum in its entirety. I might not be qualified to speak on the spectrum in its entirety as a cis-hetero woman, but I want to contribute what I can to at least start the conversation.

The “Chink Eyepiece” is quite arresting – what made you want to style the piece on non-Asian models?
I chose to style the piece on non-Asian models, because the concept of the piece was to make “chinky” eyes as appealing to westerners as big, round eyes are appealing to Asians. The piece is more for the purpose of questioning why Asians have resorted to surgery to alter their mono-lidded, slanted eyes for a more western look.

What sort of feedback have you had?
I have had a lot of people who’ve thanked me for making jewellery that speaks on the Asian-American experience! It’s very validating and fulfilling to receive such a response because it’s basically telling me I’m accomplishing what I initially intended to do. 

What is your favourite piece and why?
My favorite piece might be my “Hot Chinitos” set of 3 brooches, because it’s kind of a summary of how non-Asian-Americans stereotype Asians (no matter which type of Asian you are), and also because I love Hot Cheetos.

What do you hope your jewellery will achieve?
I just hope that my jewellery makes the discussion on Asian-American experiences commonplace. I also hope that my work shows that jewellery can be an art form and does not have to be a distant luxury item for people who can’t afford it.

Do you think that creating this collection has been therapeutic in anyway?
Once I’d started coming to terms with my identity, I’d already dealt with the residual resentment or guilt that came with moving away from my family and then finally appreciating them for all that they’ve allowed me to experience culturally. This collection was, however, very therapeutic in letting me express all that I’d discovered regarding my identity in the past few years, and I approached the collection hoping to help other Asian-Americans come to the same understanding of their identities. 

What’s next for you?
I want to make more pieces along the same line, because I have so many more concepts to execute that I just couldn’t fit into my thesis year. Identity can be a lifetime of exploration, so I feel like I’ll never run out of ideas.

Artist Ada Chen's
Artist Ada Chen's

Breaking Stereotypes Drum Toys, 2018.

Artist Ada Chen's
Breaking Stereotypes Drum Toys, 2018.
Artist Ada Chen's
Artist Ada Chen's

Firecracker Christmas Tree Earrings, 2017.

Artist Ada Chen's
Firecracker Christmas Tree Earrings, 2017.
Artist Ada Chen's

Hot Chinitos, 2018.

Artist Ada Chen's
Hot Chinitos, 2018.
Words
Maybelle Morgan
ADA CHEN

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